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December 10, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

ADDISON COUNTY — René Nill never imagined she would get college credit for the work she did as a child on her parents’ rabbit farm, or her experience as a paste-up artist at a printing company. But the 47-year-old Vergennes resident found there was plenty she had already learned before setting foot in a Community College of Vermont classroom two years ago. All she needed was a way to articulate that learning.

That’s what she found in the Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) course she took at CCV last year. The course, which is being offered again this spring at seven different locations around the state, including Burlington and Rutland, assists adult students in the preparation of individual portfolios through which they request credit for learning acquired on the job, through volunteer work or even in self-taught hobbies.

“Students do not get credit for experience, they get credit for learning through experience,” said Gabrielle Dietzel, coordinator of assessment services for the Office of External Programs of the Vermont State Colleges, which evaluates the completed portfolios.

The program, which is one of the oldest of its kind in the country, has been offered for 30 years, but Dietzel said she’s seen a rise in enrollment since returning to college after years in the working world has become more common in recent years.

“Adults are going back to school in huge masses,” she said. “A lot of our students have a business background. They’ve risen through the ranks in their company … Now they’re 50 years old and they realize that not getting a degree is holding them back from getting promotions. Or they simply want a degree.”

For Nil, a paraeducator at Vergennes Union Elementary School, earning an associate’s degree at CCV became obligatory after the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2001. But as a mother of two, Nill only had time to take two courses each semester. At that rate, she said, it was going to take her forever to get her degree.

So she signed up for the APL course last spring, and by the end of the semester, she had transformed 43 years of life experiences into 82 college credits — only 60 are technically required to graduate from CCV. More importantly, she said, she had a chance to look back and to learn about herself.

“It wasn’t easy. I would say do not do anything else while you’re taking this course,” she said. “But I learned so much about myself … They worked you through every detail of what you had done at each time period of your life.”

Students begin with their very first working experience, which for Nil was in 1964, when at four years old she helped her family on the farm. She went on to evaluate her time working at a greenhouse, a printing company and the five years she took painting classes with a portraitist in Connecticut. She assessed the teaching she’d done in Vergennes, including math, reading and writing, and got credit for sign language, CPR and First Aid.

According to Dietzel, there are no limits to the kind of experience students can evaluate, nor to the number of credits they can earn, though the average student will earn between 20 and 30 credits.

“It’s a complicated, work-intensive course, but it’s a wonderful way to get a step ahead,” she said.

The portfolios include three parts: Students must articulate what they learned from each individual experience; they must document that learning by finding people qualified in each particular field to write a letter confirming the student’s comprehension; and they must write a long essay about their personal background.

“Usually people ask, ‘What did you do?’” Dietzel said. “We ask, ‘What did you learn?’”

The most difficult part for Nill was finding people to confirm that she had, in fact, learned what she said she had.

“Some of the people I had to get letters from were not in business anymore, so I had to find other people to verify my learning,” she said. She set up meetings and discussed her knowledge and experience with printers, artists and horticulturists she had never met.

Despite the whopping number of credits she earned, Nill still has four classes to complete at CCV before graduation. The APL credits work like transfer credits, and are accepted differently depending on the institution’s individual degree requirements.

Nill expects to get her degree at the end of this spring, but she believes her experience in the APL course will stay with her even after she’s done with school.

“I was so surprised at how much I had learned,” she said. “I’m still bringing those things I learned in the (APL) course into the courses I’m taking now… and at (VUES) I’ll be able to help the children further their education by showing them that school is fun.”

Though most students are drawn to the course to finally earn a college degree, Victoria Angis, who has taught the APL course for more than 20 years, said the deeper benefits of the program lie in the self-awareness and confidence students develop while closely evaluating their past.

“Many, if not most APL students come to the class with limited, often unsuccessful, prior college experience,” she said. “Perhaps they spent one dismal semester in college right after they graduated from high school 20 years ago. Through APL they come to believe that they can succeed.”

Dietzel will host a free information session about the course over Vermont Interactive Television (VIT) on Tuesday, Jan. 8, at 5:30 p.m. The overview will be broadcast at all VIT locations in Vermont, including the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury. For more information, call (802) 828-4064.

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