An Unorthodox Path

Shea Henderson waits outside Starbucks among his fellow students for our meeting, holding The Crimson White and intently reading an article as I approach him. Like the majority of students at The University of Alabama, Shea Henderson’s backpack brims with textbooks and papers for his upcoming classes, however the difference between him and his peers is one of age. Shea Henderson has returned to college after sixteen years of working in a variety of different jobs to finish his education and provide a stable financial future for himself and his long-term girlfriend.

“The big difference for me being an adult student is that I have a completely different appreciation of why I am here. I am much more motivated now. I am here for a reason. I am not only here because this is what you’re ‘supposed’ to do after high school” the Georgia native explains. Henderson began his college career at The University of Alabama as a Music major. Now, sixteen years later he is double majoring in Computer Science and English, degrees he feel will assist him in creating marketable tools in the workforce and hopefully help him achieve his goal of working as a Sound Engineer for Skywalker Sound.

As we sit at a small table in the bustling Starbucks, I learn that it’s never too late to seize an opportunity, even an opportunity of a second chance, as long as you have the motivation, passion, and drive to work for it.

What made you decide to come back to school?

I left here after the spring of ’97, so I went through 16 years of working with minimal opportunities. I enjoyed what I did. I have never been overly concerned about money, so the monetary limitations of my employment didn’t bother me much. But I’ve gone through several different relationships and all that fun stuff. There is a young woman who I’m dating now and intend to marry, and I want to be able to provide a stable future for both of us. Coming back to finish my education seemed like the best way to do that. So, after some research, I decided to come back [to The University of Alabama] because it provided the best opportunities for me.

What made you want to go into Computer Science?

The marketability of the skills. I’ve done retail, food service and struggled to be a musician for a while. I have a really diverse range of interests. My last long-term job was at a video game store and I really liked programming and what you can do with computers. So, Computer Science was a good fit for me because I enjoy technology in general, and it provides a lot of opportunities.

How do English and Computer Science go together?

The English degree shows that you can communicate with people, that you understand the written language and by extension, spoken language. Verbal communication tends to be somewhat of a problem in the computer industry, and not because there aren’t people that can’t communicate, but because you don’t typically get people who can communicate well and who can also program and code. One of my Computer Science professors told me an amusing axiom of the computer industry is that if we ever invent a computer that can understand English and we can program in English, we’ll find out that most computer programmers can’t speak English. There is at least a little kernel of truth to that, so the combination of the two degrees opens up a few more doors. I don’t even know what they all are yet, but I do know that they will provide me more opportunities for advancement in the industry.

What kind of work will you look for after graduation?

I didn’t realize how many opportunities open up with an English and Computer Science degree. The professors to whom I’ve spoken have said that my degree should open a lot of doors. What I would ideally like to do is sound engineering or sound design for animation, video games, or animated film. Because I’ve always been a fan of music, I worked as a sound engineer for bands for several years and really enjoyed that work. Computer Science allows me to go into programming and with the English degree I can go into technical writing, which pays really well.

How have professors’ teaching styles, academic culture, and campus culture changed since you were last in college?

The biggest differences I’ve seen are in the facilities and the technology. When I was here before, Blackboard didn’t exist. Even the Ferguson Center was much smaller. The engineering school has expanded and the physical look of campus has changed immensely. The teachers seem to be a bit more available now than I found them to be the first time I was here. Now part of that may be because I didn’t put enough effort into getting in touch with them [before]. But, the technology of this school has really impressed me. It’s allowed for streamlining courses in a really interesting way. The Tegrity classes allow the professors to record themselves and put the lecture and notes online, so if you do happen to miss a class you can catch up. On the whole, The University has done a really great job of combining technological concepts into the classroom setting. 

How have changed since you were last in college?

I am so much more aware that this is my money that I’m spending to be here. As a result, I put more focus into making sure that I perform up to my abilities. My ultimate goal is to be on the President’s List every semester. I am really focused on pulling up my GPA and to do that I have to manage my time. I can’t stay up all night studying because I have to work. I don’t have stamina that I had when I was twenty and I can’t pull all-nighters quite as easily. Academic success really becomes a time management issue, and I have learned how to prioritize more. I’m more focused on going to class. I actually get annoyed when classes get cancelled because I’m paying for those classes.

Are you involved with extra-curricular activities?

 Unfortunately, no. My work schedule and schoolwork make it difficult to get involved with any UA organizations, and I spent last year trying to get back in the stride of going back to class. This semester I am having a little bit more trouble balancing my course load, but my goal is to become at least involved with some of the organizations on campus. One of the biggest benefits of this University is the fact that it gives you the opportunity to make contacts with people. I really want to establish these contacts with university organizations, but there are so many organizations on campus now it’s almost hard to choose.

How has your family supported your academic journey?

I have a long-term girlfriend who I’ve been dating for three and a half years. She moved with me to Auburn for work, and she moved back to Tuscaloosa with me so I could go to school here. She’s a big part of my support system. She’s a wonderful girl and I’m really lucky. She pushed for me to go back to school, she’s been emotionally supportive, and she’s definitely been financially supportive. She works full time so that I only have to work part-time, which gives me time for class and homework. She is painfully aware of what I have to do and she gives me the space to do it. She helps balance my stress levels, and she’s been a strong motivating force for me because I want us to have the kind of life that we want to have. She’s put her academic career on hold while I finish up, and afterwards, I hope to be able to support her the way she has supported me when she goes back to school.

What are some of the challenges and benefits of returning to college?

The biggest challenge is time management. Being solely responsible for yourself, knowing that you don’t have that parental back-up that a lot of students have, even if they don’t rely on it. Being more aware of the financial side of college makes a difference in how I attend class and what I get out of it. I expect a lot more out of myself just like I expect a lot more out of the University than I used to. It’s a challenge to prioritize school over my personal life. I’ve spent years where all I had to juggle was my work life and my personal life, and now I’ve added this third element. Finding the school-work balance is very difficult. Being back here has actually helped me learn how to balance my work and my personal life better. The biggest benefit of being an adult student is understanding why I’m here, and I am a much more motivated student now. I am here for a reason now, and I have a lot more direction and drive than I had the first time around. That shift is completely due to my previous work experience and knowing what I don’t want to do for the rest of my life.

What do you believe is the most important thing you’ve learned thus far?

In life in general, you have to make your own opportunities. School is a great way of doing that. I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent person, but no matter what your skill set is, having a degree and education opens up doors for you that you may not be able to find otherwise. For me, the biggest lesson I can take away from anything is that you have to use the tools you have to make the life that you want for yourself.