Perspectives of nontraditional students: Carlton McPhail

As part of a series on nontraditional students this semester, College of Education, Health, and Human Services student Robin Morris-Wilson investigates what it means to be a nontraditional student at University of Michigan-Dearborn through a student narrative lens.

Carlton McPhailAt 69, Carlton McPhail Sr. is living his ideal life. For him, that wasn’t a membership at a nearby country club. Instead, his ambition was to return to college to earn his undergraduate and graduate degrees.

A life-long mentor of youth, McPhail coached men’s basketball and football at the University of Detroit of Jesuit High School, Pershing High School, and other area high schools for more than 33 years before retiring in 2009. He said his passion to coach stemmed from his early interactions with his former high school coach, football pioneer Jerome Evans.

“His involvement in my life really made me want to follow his in footsteps and become a coach,” McPhail said. And that is what he did.

In 1966, he graduated from high school, and the following year he enrolled in the U.S. Army. After a three-year stint, McPhail returned from Germany to enroll at University of Detroit and work for McLouth Steel Company in Detroit, Mich. This is when he also began to coach high school football. “Many of the young men that I have coached over the years have gone on to attend University of Michigan,” McPhail said.

McPhail said it was because of his relationship with former players who attended University of Michigan that he came to learn about the Retired Persons Scholarship Program (RPSP), a UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters program that offers retirees the opportunity to attend classes alongside traditionally aged students.

“I decided to return to college because I always wanted a degree in history and public administration,” McPhail said. “With these degrees, I felt I could better work with young [high school] drop-outs and out-of-work youth in Detroit.”

Years earlier, McPhail was unable to complete his studies at University of Detroit (now the University of Detroit Mercy). After one year of general studies, he postponed his studies to focus on his coaching career. In 1975, he enrolled in the journalism program at Detroit’s former Shaw College. However, three years later, he had to once again postpone his college education.

Still, McPhail said his drive to impact the lives of young people was enough to motivate him to press on and achieve his academic goals. Shortly after retiring, he applied to UM-Dearborn and was accepted. In winter 2015, he graduated with his B.A. degree in history. “This was one of the proudest moments of my life,” McPhail said.

In the fall of the same year, he continued his education in UM-Dearborn’s public administration master’s degree program.

“The resources and staff at UM-Dearborn have been very helpful,” he said. “The staff has taken time to show me how to use the library to conduct research and explained how papers for class should be written.”

Carol Ligienza, Director of the RPSP, said McPhail’s commitment to accomplishing his goals is what makes him an ideal student in the program.

“I have grown to admire his tenacity and determination in setting and successfully completing his personal academic goals,” Ligienza said. “While many RPSP students choose to attend courses under an audit status, Carlton was and is determined to have the courses he takes count toward a degree. He has not only adjusted to the rigorous courses and programs he pursues, but has excelled in his studies.”

While he has experienced academic success, McPhail admits that being an older college student can come with some challenges. In addition to adjusting to global technology and working around health challenges that can affect the aged community, he said it can be a challenge to merge with younger generations in a classroom setting.

“It can be challenging to blend in with the younger students. Young people don’t like to feel that they are being talked down to—or for that matter no one does—so you have to tread the water carefully.” For this reason, McPhail said he tries to be mindful of how he responds to younger students during classroom discussions.

He said he recognizes that by being older he sees the world differently. “At times, older people view the world differently from younger people,” McPhail said. “When I was in college during my younger days, I would skip a lot of classes. Now, I haven’t missed a class in six years at UM-Dearborn.”

In his retirement, his average day is also uniquely structured for where he is in life. When he is not studying and attending classes, McPhail said he wakes up early to read the newspaper and drink a cup of coffee. He will walk through the park grounds across the street from his house and return to read in his home library. He will do research for the book he is writing about the great migration of workers from the South to Detroit in 1920s. He noted that his research is focused on the automobile factories and how the migration continued into the 1960s and how it affected Detroit and other parts of Michigan.

In fall 2017, Carlton will graduate with his M.A. in public administration. He said he plans to continue to write and help young people in Detroit. “I will work with the North Rosedale Park Civic Association and the City of Detroit to help rebuild a future for the city.”

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