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Home at last: ECU student returns to complete degree after 50 years

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Steve Dellinger, who first enrolled at East Carolina in 1964, re-enrolled this year and completed his undergraduate degree online. "I made that one call, and when I did there were people there that wanted to help," Dellinger said. "It's amazing that it was like that, but it was.”

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 9, 2018

There is a name for students like Steve Dellinger, those who spend several semesters in college but leave before they cross the finish line. They are called “part-way home” students.

But on Friday, Dellinger will be home at last. The Statesville native will receive his undergraduate degree from ECU 50 years later than he had planned.

Dellinger, 72, will graduate with a degree in university studies. After watching two of his three children walk across the stage to receive their ECU diplomas, it is finally his turn.

“It's just something I wanted to do,” Dellinger said in a telephone interview, “an accomplishment in my life that I wanted to make.”

The Indian Land, S.C., resident is the oldest student to have graduated from ECU's university studies program, created in 2014 as an alternative degree program. Since then, more than 500 students — more than 40 percent of whom are older than 25 — have received university studies degrees.

“We're definitely seeing an influx of students who have been gone for a number of years,” Amy T. Shannon, director of University Studies, said. “I am seeing students who have been out of school 10-plus years and just never finished that degree but want to come back and do that.”

Dellinger first came to Greenville from Cool Spring High School in 1964, when East Carolina was still a college and Leo Jenkins was president. A biology major, Dellinger left during in his senior year, just 16 credits shy of graduating.

Dellinger, who had gotten married during college, made the decision to move to Charlotte after his wife was offered a job there.

“It was a financial decision for sure, maybe not a smart one,” he said. “But you have to do what you have to do sometimes.”

To support his family, Dellinger taught high school science before going to work for a home-building company. In the 1970s, he began taking courses to acquire his real estate broker's license, later received his general contractor's license and started a construction company.

In the meantime, the family welcomed two sons, Sheldon and Courtney, and a daughter, Adrienne. The two youngest graduated from ECU, as did the spouses of all three of Dellinger's children.

Between running a business and putting his children through school, Dellinger never seriously considered going back to complete his degree.

“I've kind of always wanted to do it,” he said. “But when you run your own business, you just don't have time to do everything that you'd like to do.”

When he retired, Dellinger wondered if the time might be right to go back to school, so he called ECU earlier this year to ask if such a thing would even be possible. He was told that finishing a degree in biology would require him to be on campus for class and lab work. But then someone directed him to Shannon for another option.

“Once I talked with her, she dug in,” Dellinger said. “She could have just as easily said, 'I don't have time for this.' But she didn't.

“If you talked to someone on the phone and they discouraged you from doing it, from wanting to do it and didn't give you the help that you needed, you could just easily have said, 'too hard; can't do it,'” he said. “It took a lot of work for sure, but it wasn't hard.”

The university studies program allows students who have completed at least 75 semester hours to use many of their older credits and then customize the remaining curriculum, which must be approved by the university. Once Shannon located Dellinger's records and converted his quarter hours into semester hours, she was able to guide him through the readmission process and help him plan his course schedule.

“When he said, 'I want to do this', I said, 'I'm going to do everything I can to make this possible for him,' especially when I saw how close he was,” Shannon said. “I don't think he realized how close he was to finishing his degree. I just wanted to make that happen for him.”

Beginning in the summer, Dellinger enrolled in online classes, including leadership and computer literacy. He did not tell his children about his coursework, confiding only in his sister and asking her not to mention it to anyone. Dellinger's children did not learn about their father's pursuit until he was nearly finished.

“Honestly, I never thought I would fail,” he said. “I just didn't want the pressure of people asking me all the time how's it going.”

Dellinger did exceptionally well, with almost straight A’s in his courses. He will receive an award for academic achievement during his departmental graduation on Friday.

Christy Hallberg, teaching associate professor in the English department, was impressed with Dellinger, who turned in a near-perfect research paper in his final class.

“I remember telling him several weeks back, 'You might want to wrap this up. You don't have to do all this. You're not writing a dissertation,'” she said. “But he was determined to cover the topic. I've never seen a final research paper that is that exhaustive, that long.”

While the assignment required 15 pages, Dellinger wrote more than twice that, turning in a 35-page paper.

“I worked hard,” Dellinger said. “I spent a lot of time on it. I spent the time that I needed to do this and do it right and make good grades.

“If you want to do it, you'll put the time and effort into it,” he said. “I think you just have to want to do it..”

Hallberg, who has been teaching at ECU for nearly two decades, said Dellinger might well be the oldest student she has taught, though now that she teaches online courses exclusively, it is hard to say for sure.

“I have really good students at every age,” Hallberg said. “But a lot of them don't seem to understand the importance of what they're doing.

“For the other students, it's a means to an end; it's a step toward a career,” she said. “For him, it's just 'I want to finish this for my own personal satisfaction, just to know that I've finished what I've started,' and that's a big difference.”

On Friday, Dellinger will don a cap and gown for his department's graduation, though walking across a stage is not his motivation. He's making the trip to Greenville to meet some of the people who made the journey possible, people like Shannon, whom he has only chatted with online or over the phone. He wants to thank those who helped him achieve the rite of passage that eluded him five decades ago.

“I wish I'd done it on time, certainly,” Dellinger said. “It's something I wanted to do. I'm happy that it's something I've accomplished.”

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