Thomas A. Edison State University, formed to ‘shake up’ higher ed, celebrates 50 years

Retired educator Elizabeth “Bette” Ewing still remembers the excitement when she walked across the stage at Thomas A. Edison State University, the first person to receive a diploma from the school, nearly 50 years ago.

Ewing, 76, of Marlton, lucked out in making history at the inaugural commencement in June 1973 because the class of 69 graduates was lined up in alphabetical order, and her maiden name was Barry.

“I was scared. I was proud,” recalled Ewing, who earned an associate’s degree. “I knew it was a sense of accomplishment.”

Ewing plans to return to the state school in downtown Trenton on Saturday for a 50th-anniversary celebration. About 450 graduates are expected to attend, when nearly 2,100 degrees will be conferred upon the class.

Thomas A. Edison State College was founded in 1972 by the New Jersey State Legislature to serve mostly adult learners returning to college while working or raising families. It was devised to offer flexibility and give students credit for demonstrating college-level learning that could occur outside the classroom.

Located a few blocks from the state capitol, the school bears the name of the famous inventor who built a lab in Menlo Park, N.J., where he conducted research and pioneered or perfected inventions like the phonograph, leading to more than 1,093 patents in the United States.

University president Merodie A. Hancock, who became in 2018 the fourth leader in the school’s history, said the college was created “to shake up” higher education. The school offers more than 100 programs, from associate to doctoral degrees, online and accepts most eligible transfer credits, including prior education and military training. Undergraduate courses start monthly, while graduate courses have multiple start dates during the year. More than 12,500 students are enrolled this year.

Hancock said students are encouraged to take no more than two classes at a time. Learning mostly takes place through guided study programs and exams. No classes are held on the small campus, but in-person classes or help can be arranged at other schools if needed, she said.

“It’s always meant to ride along with the needs of the students,” said Hancock, 57, who previously served as president of State University of New York Empire State College. “It was really designed to stop making people start at zero.”

Even commencement was moved over the years to the fall to accommodate older students who may have children graduating from high school or college in the spring, Hancock said. This year’s graduates are expected to travel from 37 states, Chile, St. Lucia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Some of its notable alum include U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, (D., N.J.); Philadelphia Flyers anthem singer Lauren Hart; former Philadelphia Eagles football players Troy Vincent and Jon Runyon; author and professor Arthur C. Brooks; and Isaac Wright Jr., whose life inspired the ABC drama For Life.

Ewing said her dreams of becoming a teacher seemed unlikely when she had to drop out of then-Monmouth College to tend to her young son, Thomas, who had broken his leg.

But then she learned about Thomas Edison and realized she “wasn’t stuck.” Getting the associate degree, she said, enabled her to “see a much brighter future.” She could work as a substitute teacher or paraprofessional in school districts.

Ewing worked in Pemberton Township for several years as a paraprofessional. Teachers encouraged her to pursue a teaching degree and she obtained a bachelor’s in 1978 from the College of New Jersey. She taught for 25 years before retiring in 2003.

“I didn’t want to give up on my goal,” Ewing said in an interview Friday. “I didn’t want to be of retirement age before I could teach.”

Hart, of Gladwyne, who graduated with a bachelor’s in music in 1996, said getting her diploma was important, although she didn’t really need it for her career. She left Temple in the ‘80s after several semesters. She took classes while traveling around the country, but not enough credits to land a degree.

“It was in my mind that I wanted to have a college degree, always,” said Hart, a mother of four.

Hart will sing the national anthem at Saturday’s festivities. State Sen. Shirley K. Turner will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

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