SMC student celebrates 50 by finishing degree


Janelle Fricke said she feels elated pondering the third act of her life after Southwestern Michigan College — she’s waited so long.

Her first act consisted of 15 years at Dowagiac’s Autocam factory and 12 years at WNDU-TV in South Bend, where she is currently the general manager’s executive administrative assistant and corporate human resources liaison. In the second act, Fricke returned to SMC after 30 years to complete four courses for a general Associate of Arts degree, confronting her lifelong nemesis — mathematics — and pulling a “strong B” to go with A’s in two science courses. One statistics class remains.

“I turned 50 this year, and one of my girlfriends was going to college for the first time, so I said, ‘If she can do it, I can finish,’” Fricke said.

Janelle Fricke

When WNDU colleagues learned she was taking classes, they assumed it was to finish her master’s degree. Her granddaughter in second grade giggled visualizing her in school.

“School is important because it was something I had left unfinished,” Fricke said. “I knew I could do it and wanted to show my sons and others that even though college may not be the right fit when you are younger, it is never too late to go back and do what really makes you happy. I may have challenges now, but they do not compare to the challenges I felt I had back then. The thought of choosing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life when what I wanted to do meant at least six to eight more years to become a veterinarian, I panicked and bailed.”

Complex real lives can sometimes make it difficult to complete a college degree, she said. While raising four sons who all attended college, Fricke’s childhood dream dimmed, but never died. In fact, the grandmother of seven has not been standing still when it comes to reaching her destined “happy place.”

“Half my adult life, I’ve worked two jobs,“ said Fricke, who considered becoming an elementary teacher starting college. “But the first thing I ever said I wanted to be was a veterinarian. It’s the only job I ever talked about growing up – and now I want to be a wildlife rescuer.”

She takes her first step in February with “Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation,” a two-day course at Wildside Rehabilitation and Education Center in Eaton Rapids.

The small Vandalia farm she shares with Robert, her husband of 22 years, is a personal petting zoo populated by seven Nigerian dwarf goats, pigs, donkeys and rabbits, plus the dog and cat who keep her company during pre-dawn homework in her recliner.

“I’m a morning person, so I get up at 4:30 and study for two hours from 5 to 7 before work,” she said.

“Even though certain jobs are plentiful right now, we’re seeing more working adults return to college part-time to complete a degree,” Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment Management Mike O’Brien said. “People are realizing that the new jobs they really want in our information economy require training beyond high school, whether that be a certification, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. They are training now to be more competitive once the job market inevitably cools off.”

Fricke’s mature work ethic is more an asset than the carefree “socializing” she preferred after graduating from Decatur Junior-Senior High School in 1986, she said.

“My first class back I was nervous and had a row of pencils and three packs of paper laid out so I wouldn’t be caught off guard by something I didn’t have. I’m kicking it old school,” she laughed.

A classmate who called her by a childhood nickname turned out to be the 4-years-younger sister of her best high school friend, so “we took biology together, too. My biology class is all women,” Fricke said. “I’m really impressed with so many of the young moms. I could never have done this when I had little ones. They work fulltime, then come to school four nights a week.

“I’m really impressed with how far SMC’s come. My aunt was one of the first to go through the nursing program in the 1960s.”

Her Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday classes expose her to both campuses, Niles and Dowagiac.

“The biggest obstacles were in my mind,” Fricke said. “Everybody’s so nice, including professors. They are willing to help and passionate about what they do, which gets me passionate. If I can do it, anybody can. I’m always up for an adventure.”

“I refused to have a party when I graduated from high school,” she added, “but I am definitely having one for this graduation!”

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