At first glance, a man sitting at a round table by himself eating chips and salsa in the writing center appears to be your average college student. But on closer inspection, Woody Depew is anything but your average 20-something college kid. In fact, Depew has his own kid who is old enough to attend college as well.
Depew, 46, is among a small minority of students who make up college campuses, classified as “nontraditional students.” They are students who are older than 25 years old, have delayed attending college, returned to earn advanced degrees or decided to change their career paths.
At the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus, Depew is one of 1,563 students out of 6,490 on campus classified as nontradition, according UNG. In the system, nearly 3,000 of the more than 16,000 UNG students are 25 years old and older.
Therefore, Depew is not alone in his choice to return to college. And like many of his classmates, his story is unique and colorful.
After earning his GED, Depew decided making money and having his own transportation at 18 years old was more important than continuing his education.
Depew attempted to attend college after high school by enrolling in a psychology class at then-Gainesville Community College in 1987. But he never completed the course because he and his parents had to share the family vehicle. Plus, the teenager was tired of school.
“Right out of high school, I was burned out,” Depew said. “I was living at home with my parents and I realized then I needed to go to work because I needed the transportation.”
Depew got a job as a union carpenter. After investing nine years of his life in the profession, he realized his career was not going to go any further.
As luck or fate might have it, another opportunity arose for the young man who was “seeking something.” A friend of his was working at a cable TV company and offered him a new job.
“He offered to take me in and train me as a cable TV field engineer,” Depew said.
Laying cable for a living, Depew was paid by the mile and was moving all over the country, going where the business was needed.
The Gainesville man lived in Florida and West Virginia as well as Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City, Utah.
The only setback was when he wasn’t laying cable he was waiting for new cable systems to be built.
“Being my own boss was really great, but the time off wasn’t so great,” he said.
Eventually, cable prices dropped, making it more cost-effective to stay in Atlanta and work as a carpenter instead of a cable TV engineer.
All together, Depew worked for over 20 years at his first careers before deciding to go back to school to get a diploma.
Rock star dreams
Amid his day jobs, Depew also dreamed of becoming a rock star in a matter of speaking.
“My goal was, originally, to help my dad be successful in (a family band),” said Depew, who worked for 20 years to start and maintain a professional band. “Then my cousin came and got involved. So the three of us all worked together.”
Depew seemed to have all of the skills of being a professional musician. Along with singing, he can play the bass, flute, guitar, saxophone, banjo and piano. However, a full-time musical career seemed to elude him.
“Living the rock star life would have been really cool,” he said. “Doing tours on a bus all around the state or country.”
By the time Depew turned 35, he realized he wasn’t any closer to his dream than when he was dreaming about it at 19. However, he didn’t want to sacrifice all of his dreams. He still wants to travel.
To make that happen, Depew decided to go to college and focus on studying computers, which has since evolved into his major of applied environmental and spatial analysis. That knowledge will allow him to acquire a job anywhere.
In 2011, he put that plan into action when he registered for classes at the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus in Oakwood.
While many nontraditional students are apprehensive about returning to a college campus and mingling among 20-somethings, the 40-plus-year-old man had two prime examples to follow.
Depew’s mother enrolled in college when he was in his 20s. He also saw his sister go back to school at a later age.
“I had those two examples of very strong women,” he said. “To watch my mom go to school, it scared the heck out of me. She’d be crying over a certain assignment or maybe the teacher didn’t do her right.”
Since enrolling at UNG Gainesville in 2011, Depew’s fears have subsided.
“There were days when I saw (my mom) doing her homework and I saw that it was a lot of work and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that,”” he said. “But I do and I love it.”
Success on campus
With a usual course load of 12-13 hours each semester, Depew looks to graduate in two years.
And he is well on his way with 80 hours out of the way.
The man who will turn 47 in June is studying applied environmental and spatial analysis.
“Basically, a lot of that is a lot of science data and environmental classification of land use,” Depew said.
With that knowledge, he wants to acquire a job in management with an emphasis in geospatial, which is a geographical science involving satellites and geography.
And while he works toward that goal, his foray into college life has proved successful.
Depew is a student writing tutor, an honors service chair officer, Phi Theta Kappa president, outreach officer for the Geospatial Alliance and a Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Ambassador.
“I’m here from basically open to close Monday through Friday,” he said.
His work ethic along with his life experience appears to be an inspiration to the younger students who are closer in age to his daughter.
“He’s very successful in everything he’s done,” UNG Gainesville student Ernest Findley said. “Woody is one of several adults I’ve met who is capable of integrating into the community that is traditionally held by younger people.”
UNG officials have also taken notice of Depew’s character and commitment.
This past week, Depew won an outstanding nontraditional student award. It was one of the three awards.
“If there’s an award, he’s won it twice,” Findley said.
And while Depew seems to have an positive influence on his fellow classmates, he really wants to be a role model to his 25-year-old daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter.
“I basically had to raise my daughter before I could say I’m ready (to go to school) and have the time to apply,” he said.
With his commitment to furthering his education, Depew hopes to inspire and encourage his daughter, Sierra Cortes, to go back to school. He aims to assuage her potential fears about walking on a campus filled with students right out of high school.
But Depew knows how to do it. He said the hardest part was getting in there and starting.
“I was plenty smart enough,” he said. “I made good money. But there was something lacking there — the education.”
The nontraditional student is sticking to his five-year plan. He aims to finish a masters program in environmental engineering and build his own home. And he has his own family and classmates cheering him on.