When summer commencement arrives on Aug. 20, few students will have waited longer to turn the tassel than one soon-to-be alumna, Western senior Ruth Hackler.
Hackler, who works as an administrative assistant in the Department of Psychology, will receive her B.A. in Psychology—about 32 years after taking her first class at the university.
Make no mistake—she is far from being a slacker.
“It really did not take me 32 years to finish,” she says with a laugh.
Hackler’s transcript, as she puts it, reads like a book. Her journey at Western started in the fall of 1978 as a freshman right out of high school. A promising student, Hackler was invited to participate in the Honors Program and even took a seminar class in Renaissance art. But a case of college love intervened.
“It was a freshman year thing,” she says with a reminiscent grin.
Hackler and her husband, Jeff, at the time a pair of smitten college kids, married after her first quarter and started a family. The couple had their first child, son Jonathan, in 1979.
While taking care of the brood and working full time, she took some more classes in 1984.
They had two more children: sons Joseph and David were born in 1986 and 1988, respectively. Her husband is self-employed in a small car dealership, and Hackler needed to work to support the family and the business.
Juggling it all was not easy. “There were challenges of child-rearing in there,” she says.
But Hackler didn’t give up on college.
In 1985, after working at a few on-campus office jobs, including the Provost’s Office, for a year, 25-year-old Hackler was hired for her job in the Psychology department. Her only qualification was a high school diploma. As she readily admits herself, that would not happen today; a high school diploma will not cut it anymore.
After a co-worker talked her into taking a Spanish class in the summer of 1987, Hackler started attending again in the fall of 1989, but a couple more gaps followed.
She took classes when she could, often at a pace of about one class a quarter.
In her job, Hackler oversees office management and works as a liaison between the faculty and the department chair related to contracts and other aspects of teaching and course scheduling. And, of course, she works with students, assisting with class scheduling, major/minor declarations—the list goes on.
But when she attended psychology classes, she was one of the students.
“Obviously it’s strange for the students to have a 50-year-old woman in your class and someone you may have seen in your academic department,” she says. “But they were really good to me. Hopefully I added a perspective to course discussions.”
Now, a couple life “speed bumps” later, she will finally accept her long-awaited diploma.
But for Hackler, taking longer to complete her degree has had its privileges. Her love for psychology came with experience of working in the department.
As she looks back on her time as a Western student, Hackler says she is amazed with the progress of academia. Back in the '70s and '80s, the psychology program was only in its beginning stages of evolving to what it is now. While the department now employs about the same number of faculty, psychology was not always a gender-equal field, she says. Professionals in psychology were predominantly male; only a few women worked in Western’s department—part-time at that.
She also has the opportunity to go back and complete the Honors Program. “The opportunity seems a lot richer for having done it slower, in some ways,” she says. “The educational opportunities have increased.”
Unlike her friends and family who had earned their degrees earlier, Hackler says she feels privileged to have experienced education as it evolved. Behavioral Neuroscience, for instance, did not establish itself as a solid program at Western until about 2005. The department now uses cutting-edge instruction methods, and Hackler is glad to have learned techniques students will be using in the future.
One of her biggest accomplishments was her association with the Medicare-funded project at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, “Stepping Stones,” connected to the Critical Junctures Institute, which inspired her Honor’s project.
Working on site at PeaceHealth, Hackler completed training to coach patients who transition from the hospital to their homes. Transition coaching can help prevent unnecessary readmission to the hospital. She later used much of the program’s methods to work with students in Psychology 431, Seminar in Adult Development and Aging, in community health outreach. The students then worked with senior volunteers at Western, Bellingham Senior Center and The Willows in workshops on medication self-management.
Hackler also worked on increasing opportunities psychology students to have meaningful volunteer experiences, such as the transition coaching, through the hospital or other related organizations. She believes fostering community relationships could result in sustainable meaningful connections that will benefit the students and the community.
In one of those efforts, Hackler hopes to join Janet Finlay, a WWU associate professor and director of the behavioral neuroscience program, and her staff to work with the Cascade Brain and Spine Center.
“There is a real need for coordinated communication across campus and with the health care community,” she says. “It’s a time-consuming but worthwhile endeavor.”
And she may not stop there. Hackler says she enjoyed the work so much that it may lead her to pursue a master’s degree.
Despite any challenges, Hackler says she feels privileged and lucky to have studied at Western, because people in her life have been accommodating to her studies. A few colleagues would help her edit papers, for example—small gestures, but she appreciates them all the same.
As Hackler closes this chapter in her life, she will credit many for helping her succeed. But fellow graduates, take note: Sometimes the best secret to success is not really a secret. It lies in perseverance.