Jeff and Waynetta Rodgers
He never dreamed he’d ever be getting a school picture taken for the Bernie High School Cotton Boll yearbook some 26 years after donning a blue graduation gown. But Jeff Rodgers is back at his alma mater as a teacher and coach, and his wife Waynetta is just down the hall.
After his high school graduation in 1980, Jeff completed courses at a junior college pursuing a physical education degree. He then transferred to Southeast Missouri State University, requiring him to make a solitary commute of more than 100 miles each trip.
All the driving time quickly became exhausting for a young husband and father, and it also became financially exhausting. So, he quit Southeast after one semester and began working as a factory employee.
Fifteen years and three children later, he seemed gainfully and securely employed. Then talk of layoffs became reality, and even though a callback was certain, he and his wife knew they couldn’t afford to ever be in a similar situation again.
Jeff was laid off in March, and after a short time, Waynetta began urging him to go back to college but to choose a different major. She asked that he consider job security so uprooting the family from their relatives, community and school they dearly loved would not be an issue.
Jeff was hesitant from the beginning, dreading the drive to Cape Girardeau, unsure of his employment situation and just plain afraid of going back to studying and taking tests. He had kept in touch with the friends he had made at work and was talking with one of them who had recently decided he wasn’t going back to the factory.
He talked to Jeff about his own decision to become a school teacher, how male teachers were scarce and needed in the educational system. The friend also was excited about the opportunity of being able to earn an elementary teaching degree without ever needing to attend the main campus of Southeast.
Jeff was intrigued, but still not convinced since he had been out of school for so long. His wife offered him a compromise. If he would register for just two classes, she would take the same two courses and help him along by taking notes and studying for tests with him, just until he felt more comfortable with it.
The deal was struck in both love and concern, but with just a little selfishness too. Waynetta had always planned to attend college after high school but marriage and raising their children had soon become her top priority. She was also managing a 14-year decorating business from her home that was substantial to their income. They both applied and registered for classes at the Harry L. Crisp Bootheel Education Center (CBEC) in spring 1996.
“One of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make was when I got the phone call in mid-December from my employer asking me to come back to work and telling him no. I was literally sick to my stomach when answering him, and Waynetta was in the background whispering, “no, no, no,’” Jeff said.
“She reminded me that God had taken care of us for the past 10 months and if we had good intentions and trusted Him, He would always take care of us and He has.”
Jeff soon found employment driving a delivery truck, and with the advice and instruction of the competent staff and teachers at CBEC, he carried a 3.5 grade point average. Waynetta also found learning had become her hobby -- at least that’s what she called it in the beginning -- and while he carried as many hours as he could, she stayed consistent taking six hours each semester including summers.
Waynetta was quick to boast with pride about Jeff’s return to college, but tried to keep her own endeavors toned down. She didn’t really have any intentions of a career change, and it was important to her not to let taking a few classes interfere with caring for her family, home and business.
She was careful to take classes while the kids were in school and early morning classes in the summer so she would be home before anyone realized she’d been gone. She was adamant that the kids would never be left in childcare; either Jeff or she would be with them. Her classes were planned around her family’s schedule.
Waynetta said, “Now when I look back, one of the grandest things about CBEC, was its location. I could go to class, buy groceries, do my banking and other shopping or make client visits, then attend another class or head home. It was very convenient and economical for me.”
“Neither of us would have ever considered furthering our education if CBEC hadn’t been an option. It just wasn’t feasible otherwise,” Jeff said.
The couple agrees that Southeast’s regional campuses throughout the Bootheel are the beginning to a more desirable future for young adults and especially for older adults.
“The higher education centers have a small-town atmosphere that those in our area are accustomed to because we are small-town. It’s scary at any age to walk into unfamiliar surroundings and have a fear of looking lost and out of place. At CBEC, that fear is soon alleviated by an administration and faculty that know you by name and by smaller sized classes with a curriculum that encourages students to become friends.”
They realize another big concern when considering college is financing. Jeff and Waynetta have both benefited from the Pell grant and used student loans.
“We’d rather take on debt for our education than for a later model car,” Waynetta said. “We look at student loans as an investment toward a higher paying job, retirement plans and perhaps newer vehicles too.”
Jeff also mentioned that he knows several other non-traditional students who have taken advantage of scholarships and other grants. Southeast also has a textbook rental system that helps tremendously in keeping costs down.
“These are areas that staff at CBEC are equipped to help students with,” he said. “You don’t have to figure it out on your own.”
The two of them continued taking classes together until they had to go their separate ways. He was an education major, and her hobby became a career change to communication.
Jeff graduated in December 2000, never having to visit the Southeast campus except to take a writing exam and receive his diploma. He is a special services teacher and girls high school volleyball and softball coach in the Bernie School District.
Waynetta is still plugging along as she entered her senior year this fall.
“When I tell other students it will have taken me nine years to graduate, they think I’m joking, but it’s true. I took off a year for both of my older children’s high school senior years and it takes awhile at six hours a semester. But so far, I’ve accomplished my most important goal-putting my family first,” Waynetta said.
She recalls an incident last fall while at the county fair with her then 10 year-old son and his friends. Waynetta told them it was time to leave, it was getting late and, besides, she had homework to do. One of the children asked if she went to school and she replied, “Yes, I go to college.” Her son looked at her surprised and asked, “You do?”
Waynetta is employed full time as a library aide in the Bernie School District. She plans to graduate from Southeast with a public relations degree in May 2006.