Saturday, June 15, 2024

<p>Michigan State interdisciplinary social sciences senior, Tina McGinnis shares her optimism as an undergraduate student in her 40s. "I would sometimes feel out of place in the hallways but everyone was really sweet about it," she said. "I started wearing Michigan State stuff so when I walked around, people were just like, 'oh, that's the secretary from the Social Science building.'"</p>

After 30 years, MSU student returns to campus to finish degree

Every time Tina McGinnis has heard the stirring melody of MSU’s alma mater, “MSU Shadows,” throughout her adult life, she’s been reminded of a “missed opportunity.”

The song “always made me cry,” she said

MSU was McGinnis' dream school, but her time there was cut short by a family tragedy. She returned home, where she started a family and career. But she always wanted to finish her degree

In spring 2023, however, she came back to complete her remaining credits. She will graduate this Saturday with a degree in interdisciplinary studies in social science, over 30 years after she first enrolled.

McGinnis first knew she wanted to attend MSU in the summer of 1986, while attending a baton twirling camp hosted on campus. She stayed in Gilchrist Hall and practiced every day in the field outside Demonstration Hall

“I just fell in love (with MSU),” McGinnis said

Two summers later, McGinnis received her acceptance letter from MSU. She was so thrilled that she decided to keep the letter, which McGinnis said she still has today

McGinnis said her times at MSU were "some of the best years of my life."

Moving to MSU was an adjustment for McGinnis, who came from a hometown of about 1,000 people where everyone knew everyone. But MSU allowed her to "make (her) own world with people (she) chose and with academics that (she) chose."

"I could make connections that are mine and only mine, and not because of who my family is, or why my brother is, or who my sister is, or what teachers I had," McGinnis said.  

Her favorite place to hang out was the Sensations dance club in the basement of Dooley's, which was a bar on Albert Street that closed in 1996.

"It was the best, it was just like a dance bar, best music," McGinnis said. "Sensations was our jam."

When McGinnis needed to unwind, she would visit her roommate's parents' house in Okemos. She said, "it was like having a second family."

Going to MSU was "everything (she) hoped it could be and more," McGinnis said.

"I always wanted to go there, it's all I wanted to do, and it met every expectation and exceeded every expectation that I had."

But McGinnis would have to drop out of MSU before completing her degree.

In the spring of her sophomore year at MSU, her father was killed by a drunk driver.

Though she returned to MSU for the fall trimester after her dad’s death, she quickly realized that being away from her mother and sister at home during that time was “not feasible for (her) anymore.” 

“Things were a mess at home … mostly my mind was on other things, and I think I barely went to class,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis said her mom was impacted most by the tragedy because her mom and dad were high school sweethearts who thought they would spend their lives together

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“My mom’s idea of what her life was going to be was completely demolished, and that’s just a really hard thing to transition from,” McGinnis said. “Whereas I was still so young and my sister was still so young, that our brains could kind of adapt to this sort of new world.”

After completing fall trimester, McGinnis dropped out and moved back home to be with her mom and sister. McGinnis was about a year and a half short of finishing her degree.

But moving back home allowed her to grow closer to her sister

"My sister and I were sort of in it together because I think my sister was so good at recognizing that I'd left school to come home," McGinnis said.

McGinnis also resumed working at the new outlet mall in her hometown of West Branch, where she had worked over the summer

During that difficult time, serendipity stepped in. The new shops at the mall were recruiting college students to work, meaning McGinnis was surrounded by new friends — a taste of what she had loved so much about college

“With the outlet mall being like it was at that time, with all those young people working there and coming fresh off from college, it made me feel like I’d extended that college experience,” she said

Finishing her degree started to feel like less of a priority for McGinnis as she focused on supporting her family. On top of that, she was making good money as the store manager of one of the designer boutiques in the mall

"It really felt like I had made this career choice for myself," she said. "Without that degree I still had this career."

Around that time, she also met her eventual husband, Pat McGinnis. The couple married about five years later and had their first child a year after that

"My focus just became family, and I loved my life," McGinnis said.

But her love for MSU and desire to finish her studies would linger in the back of her mind for over 30 years


'MSU Shadows' leads to a realization

In the fall of 2022, McGinnis attended an MSU vs. Western Michigan University football game with her husband.

Before the game, the band followed its tradition of playing “MSU Shadows,” and McGinnis was again reminded of her “missed opportunity” at MSU

As she listened to the alma mater that day, McGinnis was at a crossroads in her life

She and her husband had just relocated from their home in Grand Haven — where they raised their kids while McGinnis worked as a reading interventionist in the public schools — to Portage.

“We moved as empty nesters,” said McGinnis, whose two daughters graduated from MSU

Before moving, McGinnis said she assumed she would find a job in Portage schools. But she started to realize she was too attached to her previous school and students to work anywhere else

“I know lots of teachers move around," McGinnis said. "You can switch jobs, but for me, I just couldn’t see that I would develop that same passion."

McGinnis was unsure of what to do next until her husband proposed she go back to school, this time at Western Michigan University, located a town over from Portage

McGinnis considered the possibility, and even met with an advisor at WMU

But she changed her mind at the MSU vs. WMU football game, as she cried to “MSU Shadows” and swayed next to her husband along with the crowd at Spartan Stadium

“Pat just looks over at me and he’s just like ‘you have to finish school here,’” McGinnis said.

The couple said they attended their first game at Spartan Stadium together with a group of friends in fall of 1990, McGinnis’ last trimester at MSU before dropping out

Now, McGinnis will graduate on Saturday with the degree she started more than 30 years ago.

Navigating campus as a non-traditional student

Upon returning to MSU in January 2023, McGinnis said she felt out of place among the 18 to 22-year-old undergraduates

“It’s that whole thing where you think everybody’s talking about you and thinking about you and that’s just in your own brain,” she said. “Because really, when I got in, everybody had their own issues and had their own feelings of imposter syndrome.”

“It was just definitely in my head, and it just took me a little while to work it out.”

As she adjusted to life as a non-traditional student, McGinnis said she even considered wearing Michigan State clothes so people would assume she was a university employee.

“I told Pat, ‘I'm gonna start wearing Michigan State, so when I walk around, people are just like, ‘oh, that's the secretary of the social sciences building,’” she said.

It was also a challenge for McGinnis to adjust to the reliance on technology in her classes rather than the paper and pencils she remembered.

On her first day of class, McGinnis was expecting a hard copy of the course syllabus and did not know how to access the digital copy her professor was reading from

She texted her daughters for help, and they told her how to sign into D2L, the online software MSU professors use to organize their courses and assignments

Her husband would later show her how to take notes on a laptop, but McGinnis said she opted to take notes on paper instead

“I was the only person that was pulling out my folder with my pen and pencil but, you know, I aced the classes, so I did something right,” she said

A passion for education

McGinnis also had to fulfill her capstone project requirement, which social science students must complete to demonstrate a mastery of a particular subject matter. McGinnis enthusiastically presented her project in a crowded third floor hall of Berkey Hall last Friday.

For McGinnis’ project, she set out to learn more about Michigan’s criminal justice system, focusing on its impact on juvenile offenders

One of her main questions was if the criminal justice system takes into account that juvenile offenders’ brains aren’t fully developed when they’re arrested, she said. She also wanted to know how punitive policies against juvenile offenders' impact recidivism rates, and if there have been specific reforms to ensure that juveniles are being treated in the justice system as minors rather than adults.

Through her research, she found that most people working in Michigan's criminal justice system are aware of how juvenile offenders have different needs than adults, but that many areas lack the funding to provide support and programming aimed at rehabilitating juveniles.  

“Our kids are the most important thing we have,” she said. “That’s where we need to put our resources.”

McGinnis was motivated to explore juvenile justice because of her experience working in public schools in Grand Haven. There, she observed a socioeconomic divide among students, and saw how kids from lower income backgrounds were disadvantaged. 

“I would think, ‘these kids are starting out behind everyone,’” she said. “They’ve got weight on their shoulders, and it’s so heavy. The system is so hard to break out of, and how do they transition out of that?”

McGinnis' experience teaching in Grand Haven along with her studies at MSU inform her view that the justice system should be focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, she said

McGinnis’ passion for criminal justice persists despite the fact that her family experienced a “very serious failing of the justice system,” after her dad died

The drunk driver who killed her father never “served a night in jail,” she said.

McGinnis inspires her daughter

McGinnis’ eldest daughter, Molly McGinnis — who graduated from the MSU College of Education in 2018 — arrived at Berkey Hall to surprise her mom during her capstone presentation

Molly McGinnis said her decision to study education was motivated by seeing the impact her mom had as a reading interventionist

“Even before she had her degree, she was still inspiring me to go after things, and to be a better person and achieve my goals,” Molly McGinnis said

Molly McGinnis said she was proud of her mom for returning to MSU and getting all 4.0s in her classes

“Seeing her do this is just really inspiring to me.”


McGinnis’ adviser, Nicolas Gisholt, will be in attendance during commencement on Saturday

He said McGinnis was “super excited” about coming back to MSU, and that he formed a friendship with her as they’re around the same age and both have families

“Commencement is one of my favorite days every year, because that's where I get to see my students kind of come to the day they’ve been looking forward to, whether it's been four years or whether it's been 25 years,” Gisholt said

During the commencement ceremony on Saturday, McGinnis said she will wear the cap her daughter Molly wore when graduating in 2018. She’ll also wear the gown her daughter Mary wore when graduating in 2022.

As the band plays “MSU Shadows” during the commencement ceremony on Saturday, emotions are likely to arise again for McGinnis.

But her tears will be for other reasons than a “missed opportunity” at MSU.