See You Around Campus, Dad

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Most teenagers heading off to college look forward to getting away from their parents. Not for Isabella Tobias. The start of school will actually bring her closer to her father.

“I don’t know anyone who has gotten the gift of going to school with a parent,” she said. “College is a scary thing the first year. You are meeting people from all over the world and it will be a nice thing to have a guiding hand to help me transition from high school to college.”

Isabella Tobias and her father Stephen at her high school graduation. They will both pursue bachelor’s degrees at Columbia University’s School of General Studies this fall.

Isabella Tobias and her father Stephen at her high school graduation. They will both pursue bachelor’s degrees at Columbia University’s School of General Studies this fall.

Her father Stephen agrees that a father-daughter scholarly pursuit sounds more exciting than daunting, and he is looking forward to sharing his school with her.

“I was excited,” he said. “I had always been looking forward to her possibly doing the same program.”

Six years ago, Stephen started attending Columbia University’s School of General Studies part-time, where he studied English to complete his overdue undergraduate degree.

“I went back just for the purpose of enlarging my life experience,” he said. “Fortunately, at this time in my career, I have reached a point where I can go to work from 8 to 4 and go to school at night.”

Though he started taking classes at Brooklyn College and the Fashion Institute of Technology when he was younger, 61-year-old Stephen gave that up after a stint with the army, and the beginning of a lucrative career. He still runs his boutique brokerage firm, I.A. Englander, but he now has a greater goal in mind—getting his B.A., a master’s degree and then becoming a teacher.

“I don’t know many people, if any, that would be able to do that,” Isabella said of her father’s plans. “He didn’t have to go back to school. He has a family and a job, but he wanted to better himself. I respect him for going back to school after all those years and opening up the textbook.”

Her father’s hard work and drive have inspired Isabella in her own career path. Even though she has seriously taken on ice dancing as a vocation, and she is currently training to compete in the 2014 Olympics, Isabella decided that she wanted to plan a career beyond skating.

“It will help me better myself as a person,” she said. “It will help me to prepare myself to be an adult, be more educated, and be more well rounded.”

The subject Isabella chose to study has proved practical in her current globe-trotting line of work: linguistics. Spanish is the first language she will tackle this coming semester.

“The many places skating has taken me in the world is great and when you pick up a couple words in the native language, it’s just amazing to communicate with such a broad array of people,” she said.

One reason the Tobiases chose the Columbia University School of General Studies is because it offers an Ivy League undergraduate degree but works with both their hectic schedules. Isabella practices skating four to five hours a day, Monday through Friday, and Stephen works full time.

“They picked the school probably because from a traditional view, it’s a rigid liberal arts education,” said Curtis Rodgers, the university’s dean of enrollment management. “But it’s not for traditional students.”

The school currently hosts about 1,300 students, and while the ages range from 18 to 65, Rodgers said the average attendee is 29 years old.

“Isabella is more traditional in terms of age,” Rodgers said, “but she is non-traditional because she will be attending part time while pursuing her dream of become an Olympic skater.”

The school’s roots go back to the 19th century, when it was conceived to teach night classes for working men. By 1891 women were allowed to attend classes, and in 1921, the facility became known as the University Extension and started offering a Bachelor of Science degree. The extension officially became a school in 1947, when it was granted university status to help support the education of G.I.s coming home from World War II. In 1968, the Bachelor of Arts degree became available.

When Stephen graduates in May 2010, he will join the ranks of alumni including Isaac Asimov, Pat Boone and Howard Dean. And if Isabella makes it to the Olympics, she may eventually join the list of notable graduates athletes as well.

I look at going back to school with my father as a blessing instead of a curse,” she said. “It’s an honor, and going to Columbia is an honor as well.”

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