When students are asked why they chose to attend Ferris State University, most talk about the small class size or unique programs. James and Rebecca Young are not most students.
This couple, both May 2015 graduates, are non-traditional students who grew up in the area. James graduated from Morley-Stanwood High School, attended Ferris for a year in 1989, but dropped out. Rebecca dropped out of high school her senior year in 2000 and earned her GED when she was 19.
The Youngs, who married in 2004 and had a child in 2008, spent several years in marketing, running their own business with clients in the southern states until the devastation of Hurricane Katrina forced them to close their business.
"We searched for any kind of work, even minimum wage," James said. "We didn't care; we needed to provide for our daughter. After a year of not having any success in finding work, my wife formulated a new plan."
It became clear they needed education for new careers, so they enrolled at Ferris in 2010. Their daughter, who was just 14-months-old at the time, is their inspiration for pursuing their college degrees.
Ferris was a natural fit for them, in part, because Rebecca is a fourth-generation member of her family to attend Ferris after her great-grandfather, grandmother and mother.
"I had the goal of graduating summa cum laude, because my grandmother, who attended Ferris as a non-traditional student in her forties, graduated magna cum laude, so I wanted to beat grandma," Rebecca said. "Unfortunately, I didn't beat her, but I graduated with honors, and I think she would be proud of that."
James and Rebecca both earned bachelors' degrees in Integrated Studies at Ferris and did exceptionally well academically, both earning several scholarships.
James achieved his goal of graduating summa cum laude, earning a 4.0 in every class with the exception of two. He is a member of four honor societies, including Omicron Delta Kappa, a national leadership honor society. Rebecca is a member of three honor societies, including Sigma Tau Delta, an international English honor society.
The Youngs have accomplished these academic goals while maintaining heavy work schedules with Ferris' Office of Residence Life and homeschooling their daughter. James worked as an apartment manager and Rebecca as a desk services associate, and their jobs covered their housing expenses.
Despite their demanding schedules, James and Rebecca found time to give back to their community. James, who experience homelessness earlier in his life, volunteered more than 200 hours as an overnight chaperone at Our Brother's Keeper, a homeless shelter in Big Rapids. Rebecca volunteered more than 125 hours.
"That was hard for the family, because you go there at 8 p.m. and you get out at 8 a.m.," James said.
Rebecca said she connected with women and children staying there.
"There was a young pregnant mother with a 3-year-old," she said. "We really connected, because I was able to help her with her daughter at night, so she could get some rest. It was really rewarding."
Rebecca wore a bunny outfit to the shelter on Easter and handed out candy to the children.
"It was fun," she said. "We put some smiles on their faces."
The Youngs were honored with the Woodbridge N. Ferris Service Medallion in 2013 for their service to Our Brother’s Keeper; and four days after graduation James was elected to serve a two-year term on Our Brother's Keeper’s board of directors.
“It is a fantastic opportunity for me to serve and give back to the community,” James said.
James also served as a mentor with Big Brothers and at Eagle Village Residential Center,
mentoring abused and neglected teenage boys who are wards of the state.
"Having grown up without a father in my life... there are challenges that come with that," James said.
James' volunteer efforts earned him the prestigious Outstanding Community Impact Award in 2015 from the Michigan Campus Compact.
While at Ferris, James and Rebecca both discovered a talent and passion for writing. Together they founded W.R.I.T.E. – Writers Rendering Insightful Thoughtful Exchanges – a registered student organization for aspiring writers. They also were winners in the Prism competition, an annual student writing and art competition sponsored by Ferris' department of English, Literature, and World Languages. Their writing was published in The PRISM journal.
Rebecca discovered an interest in writing during an Introduction to English class taught by adjunct instructor Bernadette Fox. After Rebecca's first assignment, Fox pulled her aside and told her she should be in a higher English class.
"It blew my mind; no one had ever complemented my writing before," Rebecca said. "I'm happy to say that I didn't change classes, because Bernadette helped me hone my writing skills and learn how to communicate more effectively... The value of being able to communicate via the written word is one of the greatest tools that I have gained here at Ferris."
Fox said Rebecca was generous to other students.
"She made an announcement in class to all of her classmates one day, offering to edit their portfolios for them," Fox said, who also spoke highly of James.
Fox recalled a time in class when James and another student had been debating a controversial issue.
"After the class ended, he walked over to the other student, introduced himself and they had a pleasant discussion," Fox said. "Sometimes people are quick to make an adversary out of someone whom they disagree with on one issue and close themselves off from that person, but James chose to make a friend instead," she said.
James and Rebecca took an unconventional path and surmounted challenges to earn their college degrees, yet excelled academically and gave back through community service and leadership.
"We've been able to accomplish everything we have, because we are a team: me, my wife and my daughter," James said. "My wife and I are competitive with each other, but in a friendly way. We spur each other on and quiz each other before an exam."
The Youngs plan to continue their educations: Rebecca is pursuing a master's degree in English and Creative Non-Fiction and James plans to pursue a master's in Organizational Leadership both through Southern New Hampshire University online programs.
James and Rebecca's story exemplifies the power of education.
"If you are a non-traditional adult learner who wants to make a change and are thinking about coming back to school, the number one thing I can tell you is just do it," James said. "Don't listen to people who say you can't, because we are living proof that you can do it."
In addition to pursing master's degrees, the Youngs will start a non-denominational
church in Rogers Heights.
“Through our ministry we hope to work together with Our Brother’s Keeper to give hope to those who are without a home,” James said.
Last updated: 10-12-2016