Meant to be: WSU employee, commencement speaker returns to school 3 decades later to earn degree
Beth Charnock considers herself to be a “seasoned” student.
“I believe we are called ‘adult learners’ now,” joked the 55-year-old Charnock, who graduates from Wayne State University on Dec. 17 with a bachelor’s in communication studies. She is also the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts’ commencement speaker. “And I am thrilled to be a first-generation, summa cum laude college graduate.”
However, Charnock’s first-ever college experience came immediately after high school — from 1985 until 1987 — when she attended Michigan State University to study what was then called telecommunications. “This was also a time before the internet, cellphones and all the other technology we have today,” Charnock said. “To put this in perspective, when I was there, it was considered a big deal if you owned an electric typewriter.”
But Charnock only attended MSU because “it was expected of me,” she said. “I had a difficult time transitioning to such a large university and living away from home. I felt like a fish out of water.”
After two years of struggles, Charnock left. She continued to take classes at UM-Dearborn and Henry Ford College. But by then, she said, the light had gone out. “I felt I did not fit into the academic world,” Charnock said. “I knew I disappointed my parents because they were hoping I would be the first person in our family to graduate from college.”
Instead, Charnock found a job with Northwest Airlines and life continued. She married and had two children. Despite those successes, she said, it always bothered her that she had been unsuccessful in higher education. “I just felt it wasn’t meant to be,” Charnock said.
Fast-forward to 2017. At the time, Charnock was working for an attorney who decided to close the law practice and run for judge in the 27th District Court. She figured it was time to make a move.
“A friend of mine, Julie O’Connor, worked for WSU and always talked about what a great school and employer Wayne State was,” Charnock said. “She encouraged me to apply.”
Charnock was hired in July of that year at the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. It wasn’t long afterward that a coworker asked if Charnock was going to take classes and earn her degree through Wayne State’s Employee Tuition Assistance Benefit program.
“I thought — ‘Well, why not?’ — and my first college class in over 30 years was in January 2019,” Charnock said. “To say I was scared was an understatement. Terrified is a better word. I had serious concerns that my age would be a disadvantage and I would not be able to keep up with my younger classmates.”
But she encountered the exact opposite and “is happy to say I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Charnock said. “Honestly, going back to college has been such a rewarding experience. In fact, it has been the most rewarding experience of my life, outside of having my two children.”
The difference this time around? She wanted to learn.
“In 1985, I went to MSU because it was expected of me, not because I wanted it,” Charnock said. “There is a big difference between attending college because you want to versus attending because you think that is what you are supposed to do following high school. Suddenly, at Wayne State, school became something I truly enjoyed. I had a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Charnock remembers completing her first Department of Communication class — COM 3250 — in organizational communication and how the happy tears flowed upon receiving an “A” grade. “After that first semester,” she said, “I realized I had what it took to be a successful student — the drive, determination and focus to do and be better.”
What slowly began with one class at a time eventually built up to three classes per semester. “This was in addition to working full time, maintaining a home and being a single mother,” Charnock said.
As it would happen, more than six months after she took her first class in three decades, Charnock's daughter, Sophia, a student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, began her inaugural semester at WSU in fall 2020. The pair, who were both in the Irvin D. Reid Honors College, even had the opportunity to take a class together last spring.
“That was a great experience for both of us,” Charnock said. “In fact, Honors College Dean John Corvino featured us in ‘Zoom to the Finish 3’ last spring as a mother-daughter duo!”
In addition to working full time for WSU and earning a degree, Charnock is also a part-time tennis coach and bookkeeper for a local contractor in her area. During the pandemic, she was also a Shipt Shopper and did grocery shopping and delivery for others. “I felt that this was the best way that I could give back to my community,” Charnock said.
Professionally, she continues to move up the WSU employment ladder and has received three promotions since arriving five years ago. Currently, Charnock is assistant to the associate dean in the College of Engineering. With her degree completed, she hopes to implement and apply the skills learned from the communication coursework to her current role.
“I think what led to my success with WSU was the drive to be successful and to be a positive role model for my children. I really wanted it and had a hunger to be an exemplary student,” Charnock said. “My children were my biggest cheerleaders. They watched me struggle through some hard times, like during the pandemic. But I never let it get me down and my motto was always — ‘just take it one day at a time, one class at a time.’”
Story by Shawn Wright, Communications Officer for the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts.