Proud parents will fill the stands at this weekend’s graduation ceremonies at Texas A&M University, with the exception of Shelly Brenckman whose daughter Andrea will be receiving her bachelor’s degree. Instead of watching the procession of smiling, robe-clad graduates, Shelly will be one of them, walking the stage right after her daughter to receive her bachelor’s degree at the age of 55.
Andrea, 22, “Ande” for short, will graduate with her mother Saturday morning at 9 a.m. from Texas A&M’s Mays Business School and, by coincidence they say, both majored in university studies, with a concentration in business, and had creative studies minors.
“During my first day in a business class, I received a text message from my daughter’s former high school classmate. He asked, `Is that Ande’s Mom on the front row?’” After class, he asked if I was attending class to take notes for my daughter. I explained I was there taking notes for myself!”
Following the same academic path as they did, it was just a matter of time before mother and daughter were in the same class; they shared three classes and say they studied together and helped each other keep up.
Yet, Shelly promises, she tried give her daughter the space any college student needs away from Mom. “Actually I think we saw more of each other before I was a student, because I was so busy,” Shelly remembers.
Ande says she’s proud that her mother decided to seek a degree in later life; Shelly had started at Sam Houston State University in 1975, transferring to Texas A&M in 1976, but she never finished. “She’s incorporated her life lessons and experiences into her classes and assignments at A&M,” Ande notes. “I’m proud that she’s been able to continue being a wonderful mother while commuting to finish her education.”
Shelly commutes 70 miles to campus from her home on Lake Conroe and says it’s worth the effort to be able to reenter a workforce that’s changed since 2000, when she became a stay-at-home mother and part-time, volunteer president of a local non-profit corporation.
“I’d been self-employed as a consultant and vendor to Texas A&M during 15 years of my professional career,” Shelly explains. “It seemed like a smart strategy to return to the ‘mother ship’ for retooling since my skills were dated and I had no recent employment history.”
In addition to her academic responsibilities, Shelly holds two part-time, campus jobs including one for the Aggie Angel Network (AAN), a not-for-profit organization that provides early-stage investment opportunities. “I recruit new investors, host guests at our membership meetings and handle communications,” she explains. Her other job is at Startup Aggieland, Texas A&M’s new student-run business accelerator, where she helps student entrepreneurs launch business enterprises. “It’s a challenge sometimes to juggle two part-time jobs for what amounts to a 40-hour work week while also enrolled in 12-18 hours as a full-time student.”
Shelly’s return to school in later life is part of a growing trend as the non-traditional student population is on the rise nationwide. Texas A&M enrolls more than 7,000 non-traditional students, or “non-trads” as they’re known, and they include students who have dependents, those who’ve delayed enrollment, work full-time or attend school part-time.
“I’m a big believer in lifelong learning,” Shelly notes. “We need universities to help non-traditional students like me be able to retool for second careers and stay mentally active.”
Shelly says she’s weighing her post-college career options, adding, “I’m looking forward to staying involved at Texas A&M as a supporter of The Association of Former Students and the 12th Man Foundation, but I will also need to get a job since I do have to pay off my student loans!”
The younger Brenckman, who’s worked as an officer of the 12th Man Student Foundation and as a student worker at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, at the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy, says she hopes to land a full-time gig working for the university. She has applied to Mays Business School to pursue her Master’s in marketing. “I want to give back to the university that has given me so much during my time here as a student,” she emphasizes.
Shelly credits much of her success in college to her family and the many campus members who've motivated and encouraged her along the way including President R. Bowen Loftin, and Professors Don Lewis and Rodney Hill. “They helped me to recognize the joy in lifelong learning and the wonder of taking on new challenges,” she says. “My daughter Ande encouraged me to tackle new technology that seemed daunting. And my husband Mark, who is also an Aggie, made it possible for me to focus on coursework by helping around the house.”
As for her walk across the stage Saturday, “I expect it will feel like an out-of-body experience,” Shelly muses. “I think Ande is nervous about me walking since I am a notorious klutz! But I’m so grateful for the opportunity to return as a non-traditional student and to graduate with my daughter; she’s my hero.”