Living the Dream

on February 13 | in Featured | by

For 40 years, the Horizon Program has empowered adult women from all walks of life to discover their voices and fulfill their ambitions.

By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

The Ha-Ha Sisterhood
The Witches of Eastnor
The Oompa Loompas from the Chocolate Factory

Celia McCormick fondly remembers the creative monikers that students from Hollins’ Horizon Program for adult women adopted each fall for Tinker Day. However, the retired Horizon director still winces when she recalls a query she frequently received during her leadership: Describe the average Horizon student.

“I hated that question,” she told attendees at the program’s 40th anniversary reunion last September. “First of all, there is absolutely nothing average about any of you. Horizon students have ranged in age from the mid-20s, occasionally younger, to their mid-70s, occasionally older; some single, some married, some with children, some without, some worked, some didn’t. Horizon students have never, thank goodness, fit into a neat description. That’s what makes it so interesting, and really quite inspiring.”

Yet talk with past and current Horizon students about how the program has affected their lives, and their stories are remarkably similar. “Finding my voice” is a commonly cited discovery: Evelyn Bradshaw, who graduated through Horizon in 1988 and became director of the program a year later, explains, “It was at Hollins that I learned I was smart and I mattered and that my opinions counted for something. I could be a leader and I had contributions to make.” Aretha Day ’12, a small business owner who has gone on since graduation to complete an executive M.B.A., relishes that she “didn’t have to apologize for being who I was. I could say what I had to say and it was accepted. The Horizon Program helps women find their authentic selves.”

Ericka Kelly

Ericka Kelly

Confidence is the mantra of Horizon student Ericka Kelly, an English and creative writing major who is pursuing an interest in screenwriting. “A very consistent Ericka has definitely shown up in this last year and a half. My decision-making, my ability to know that no matter how crazy things get, I can handle it.” And Sarah Hazlegrove ’90 states unequivocally that, when she was 27 years old, Horizon “changed my life. It was the beginning of this huge awakening.”

Horizon’s genesis began in 1974. Recognizing that women over 21 were already attending Hollins as day students, Elizabeth Minnich, the school’s first director of continuing education, proposed “that we make some special revisions for these students, seek new ones, and proceed toward implementation of a full program geared to the special needs of re-entry students.”

“Continuing Education,” as the program was called, embraced the mission that endures today: serving nontraditional-age women who weren’t ready to enter college after high school, or who had to delay higher education because of family or career obligations. The program’s structure has dramatically evolved since the mid-70s. Then, the program was strictly part time. As Sandra Tucker-Maxwell ’90 notes in her research paper, “The Hollins Horizon Program: 1974 to 1991,” “…students were advised to take just one class during their inaugural term at Hollins. Special re-entry courses were especially designed to help the returning woman regain study and writing skills as well as to ease her back into the academic environment….”

A turning point came in 1987. “Continuing Education” inadvertently implied the program was noncredit, so a new name, “Horizon,” was adopted from student suggestions. “Since a definition of horizon is the range of perception or experience, it fit perfectly,” Tucker-Maxwell explains.

Sarah Hazlegrove

Sarah Hazlegrove

The program’s other major change was offering adult women the option to attend Hollins full time. Horizon students enthusiastically embraced the opportunity. I became a work horse,” says Hazlegrove. “I had always been a hard worker. I liked manual labor. But I’d never felt challenged on an intellectual level to that extent. I was very hungry for all I was learning. It was an experience that taught me so much about myself, what I was capable of.”

Horizon students are legendary for their herculean work ethic and time management expertise. “I’m [on campus] all day,” says Kelly, who also holds down “about four part-time jobs.” Tessa Urgo ’15 juggles a demanding academic schedule (22 hours during the fall 2014 term) with raising three young sons. She approaches her education “like a job. I come here in the morning when I get my kids to school and I stay until I pick them up. I devote that time to my schoolwork. When I go home, if they have schoolwork to do, and I have schoolwork, we all do it together. They need to see me doing my work as an example. We’re all working toward goals.”

Hazlegrove, a Phi Beta Kappa honors major in philosophy and French, is now an acclaimed photographer. She continues to credit Hollins for her ability to achieve high standards in her work. “I use the same measuring stick when I was at Hollins to gauge if I’m doing my very best. I know when I’m doing a good job. It’s held me in good stead.” She is currently traveling throughout the world documenting tobacco farming. Four Roanoke museums will feature her photography next October.

Aretha Day

Aretha Day

A strong support network, both at Hollins and beyond, is crucial for many Horizon students. When Day enrolled, she was keen to pursue religious studies, sociology, business and organizational behavior, and leadership training—or as she puts it, “I wanted to major in everything. I was talking to Celia and I said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I want to take all these classes.’ Celia said, ‘Oh Aretha, this is Hollins. We can make it work.’”

At the 40th anniversary celebration, Bradshaw shared the story of a Horizon student who needed a hysterectomy. “She was in a quandary as she dared not drop out for the semester because she was in the home stretch to graduate. Her husband, who had not graduated from high school, volunteered to attend her classes and take notes for her. He and the professor worked out the details and she finished her classes with As.”

Urgo, who wants to teach pre-K through second grade, faced the enormous task of earning teacher licensure while completing a psychology major. Even though she was passionate about a career in education, she debated whether she could meet the licensure requirements while finishing her degree. “[Associate Professor of Education] Rebecca Cox got behind me and said, ‘You can have both of them and you can be what you want to be.’ She helped me work out my schedule and gave me the emotional strength to say, ‘I can buckle down and do this.’ Had she not done that, I would have given up.”

Since its inception, Horizon has had a place to call its own, from Malvern Hill in the mid-70s to the program’s home today in Eastnor. For students, the Hill House is a sanctuary. “It’s like a nontraditional-age dormitory,” Day explains. “You can go there, you can eat chocolate, decompress, lament about a grade, get advice on a project. We would bring traditional-age students over and they were like, ‘Eastnor is the coolest place!’ When a lot of us would come in the door we’d say, ‘Hey, I’m home!’ I still say it when I come back to visit.”

Tessa Urgo

Tessa Urgo

Urgo adds, “I sit in Eastnor and there are single and married moms or a grandmother and I think, ‘That’s our common bond.’ We can talk about our kids, what we’re going to cook for dinner, how we’re going to study for an upcoming test. It’s this sorority-like feeling of knowing we can laugh, we can cry, we can vent, we can sit in silence. I can sit there and feel wonderful.”

Eastnor’s foundation isn’t bricks and mortar. It’s the recruiters, advisors, confidants, and cheerleaders also known as the various directors of Horizon over the last four decades. From the beginning, Elizabeth Minnich was realistic about the challenges: “There will be problems. There are always problems. But we plan to help the women who make this important decision in every way we can.” Current director Mary Ellen Apgar ’12 is a Horizon alumna who has continued the program’s commitment to hands-on leadership since 2013.

“She has been a big supporter,” says Urgo. “She’s a fantastic listener and has a calming demeanor. To know she’s there and so accessible is priceless. She brings a sense of experience that is invaluable. If we can see our director has done it, then clearly we’re going places. She lets us know it’s [going to be] okay.”

“I love her. She’s so encouraging,” adds Kelly. “You ask Mary Ellen, ‘How are you?’ and she always answers, ‘Oh, I’m living the dream.’”

Horizon program directors

Celebrating the program’s 40th anniversary last fall were the three most recent directors: Evelyn Bradshaw ’88, Mary Ellen Apgar ’12 (the current director), and Celia McCormick. Photo by Dan Smith

A program for adult women could exist at any public or private college or university. But both past and current students believe Horizon is uniquely successful because it’s based at a women’s college. “The ability to concentrate on your studies because you’re around women rather than a mixed student body where you might be distracted—that was like, ‘I’m in an oasis of safety and the ability to concentrate,’” says Hazlegrove.

Kelly admits, “You couldn’t have paid me when I was 17 to go to an all-girls’ school, but I see the genius in it now. It just incubates strength and motivation. I see a campus full of women who want to do something. They want to get their hands dirty, they want to start making changes, they want to see their world in a new light.”

“It makes [Horizon] that much more special because I’m not sure it would get the same type of support, focus, or attention at a coed institution,” Day asserts. “It’s not just an education, it’s an experience. It’s an empowerment of women.”

Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.

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