Adult student balances family, college life

Shantae Rollins

Many college students walking around campus may be concerned with passing classes and making friends, but Debra Kozak juggles things like her family and real-life commitments.

Kozak, an art major at Kent State, is not the average college student. She is 57 years old and considered a late sophomore by her advisers.

“I had been trying to go back to school for years,” Kozak said. “I have also had a job waiting for me for years, and I’d been working as an artist for years and things had started to become a little dicey, so I decided it was time to go back to school.”

Kozak first tried college when she was just shy of 21 years old at the Cleveland Institute of Art. After 36 years of independently selling her artwork, she took the initiative to go back to school.

She has worked closely with LuWanda Higgins, Adult Student Center program coordinator, to become readjusted into college life again.

“She is very helpful and introduced me to all the right people,” Kozak said. “She’s very committed to helping me be a success.”

Higgins said Kozak knew where she was coming from and where she was headed when she met with her about the intended direction of her college career.

“She was looking forward to experiencing college again and appreciated the Adult Student Center because it was a great connecting point on campus,” Higgins said. “I thought she presented herself well both professionally and academically, and the artwork she brought in was outstanding.”

Kozak said she always knew she was destined to be an artist because her mother could recognize her drawings from the time she could grasp a crayon in her hand.

“I sold my first portrait when I was 10,” Kozak said. “Other kids had lemonade stands, but I would drag my card table out and I had a sign that said I would draw their favorite toy for 25 cents,” she said. “One day a parent asked me to draw her child’s portrait and paid me $1, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Kozak noted that going to college at her age is challenging; however, her biggest influence and motivation to continue is her 14-year-old daughter.

“The fact that I have a child at home and commute 110 miles every day, in order not to disrupt her life is a challenge, but I want to do better and show her it’s never too late to accomplish your goals,” Kozak said. “What frightens me is screwing up and losing all this. I want this so badly that to lose it would break my heart.”

Kozak said there are advantages to being an adult student versus being a traditional one.

“I know what I want,” she said. “When I was 18, I didn’t try hard enough, but now I have such focus.”

After graduation, Kozak wants to pursue a teaching position at Case Western Reserve University as a drawing instructor. She said the job has been waiting for her, just as soon as she completes her degree. Kozak said she enjoys being in the classroom with different generations because she likes the vitality.

“When I was younger I was too easily intimidated,” she said. “The trick is that the instructors are great, but there’s room for all different kinds of art,” Kozak said. “Take as much as you can away from what they teach you, and once you get out into the real world, you can create whatever you want.”

Kozak said she would like to travel to Italy as part of the study abroad program or go to New York one weekend with a sculpture group.

“I still have so much left to do,” Kozak said. “I’ll keep moving or they’ll start shoveling dirt over me.”

Contact student affairs reporter Shantae Rollins at [email protected].