Returning at age 51 to finish a college degree at 54 – amid a global pandemic, no less – is a tall undertaking. Ann Clark, recognized at the May graduation ceremonies as the oldest graduate receiving a bachelor's degree in the Technology Division's Human Resource Development program's Class of 2023, tells us all about it.
What drew you to the Technology Division's Human Development and Consumer Sciences department? What made you choose Human Resource Development as your path?
When I enrolled for my first semester at UH, I was a communications major. The communications field was rocky at that time, so I did some soul searching. What, in the last 15 to 20 years of my career, gave me the most passion? What about it made me feel really good? What I got really excited about was whenever I got to work with people.
One experience in particular stood out. I had previously worked in accounting for a large automotive shop, and I drove the initiative that helped our mechanics obtain a certification that would qualify them for additional opportunities and expand our client base. It was expensive, but I showed the owner and management the projected return we would get from the training and investment in certifying the mechanics, and management agreed.
I oversaw the program, and when all the certificates came in, some of the guys almost started crying. They'd never been given acknowledgment like this before. They told me how important it was to them. This was changing their financial future, and it opened up additional opportunities. Human resources isn't just about benefits and packages, but training and investing in people. Getting them that opportunity was huge and had a big impact on me personally.
What were the highs and lows of your experience coming back to earn your degree?
Even though I had the motivation and determination to chase my dream, I also remember how vulnerable and insecure I felt being 51 years old and not knowing how I would fit in and connect. I thought I was going to have a much harder time working with younger people – I wanted them to see me as a fellow student. I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. Once I got involved and made myself open and vulnerable, I developed friendships and relationships with my fellow classmates that were so beneficial and rewarding.
I wanted to fully participate in the college experience, but the new student orientation and most student organizations were geared toward younger students, and I couldn’t really find student organizations for older students that I was looking for. It also didn't help that everything was going online due to COVID that first year (2020-21). So I ended up getting involved in some other groups – like joining the Society for Human Resource Management and becoming treasurer of the UH Chapter of Best Buddies – which I probably wouldn't have found if I hadn't been forced to get in and get to know my fellow classmates better in the long run. That turned a beginning low into a high.
You successfully completed an internship during your time at UH, including developing and delivering a particularly well-received workshop on unconscious biases in the workplace. Tell me more about that.
If you're strategic about your college career, you can develop a portfolio to back up your long-term career goals. There are so many projects and things that you can do to showcase and reinforce your knowledge and experience if you work intentionally. For me, the unconscious bias project was one of them.
When it came to my HR internship, recruiting had not even been on my radar. I ended up coming to the Houston Marriott Westchase Hotel, my now full-time workplace to, do recruiting, and it changed my entire career path. I still wanted to follow my dreams of developing training for diversity, equity and inclusion, so I decided to make my internship project something that allowed me to combine the two, recruiting and DEI, which ended up being an unconscious bias workshop for managers.
How I ended up here at the hotel was, I believe, because of unconscious bias. When I couldn't find a job after being laid off due to COVID, and then again when I wasn’t being offered any internships, it became obvious after several interviews that ageism was a factor.
Unconscious biases happen when people instinctively categorize others by their age, weight, skin color, gender or other characteristic and make assumptions about them based on those observations. This can lead to stereotyping based on what one has been conditioned to think about groups of people, such as older adults or individuals with disabilities. Many people don't even realize that they have these (mis)perceptions, and it's not until you bring them to light that you can address them.
How has graduating with your B.S. in Human Resource Development impacted your goals for the future?
Graduating from college opened up opportunities I'd never even dreamed of. My workplace is giving me a huge opportunity to make a difference in their training programs, and my long-term goal is to develop recruiting, interviewing, and training processes for hiring managers and HR departments that benefit those with Neurodivergent disabilities, like people on the autism spectrum or those with invisible disabilities.
I eventually want to work with other companies as a consultant to train their HR departments and hiring managers on how to interview neurodivergent people. If you have someone who is completely qualified for a position based on their resume, skills and qualifications, and discloses during the interview that they're on the autism spectrum, you'll find that a lot of interviewers won't know how to accommodate that. Hiring managers may not fully understand what's needed in that scenario, so there's a real niche for that training.
What wisdom would you like to share with anyone else who may be considering going back to school to earn a degree as an older student?
My advice is that you have to put it in the work and push yourself outside of your comfort zone. If you sit back and do nothing, people are not going to chase you down to be part of the college experience, so get involved and make the most of it. There are tens of thousands of students here, but if you get actively involved on campus, it's amazing how small that population becomes, and what you can do and be a part of.
I also highly recommend UH's Career Services workshops. They're fantastic. I attended them whenever possible; they assisted me in developing my elevator pitch and modernizing and condensing my resume in a way that really made me stand out and helped me succeed with those initial internship interviews and potential job sites.
Finally, and most importantly, you're never too old to follow your dreams. For any parent who sits in the Fertitta Center watching their child graduate and thinks 'I wish that could be me'… it can be! People may try to discourage you, but if you want to go to college, do it. Be that voice to somebody else who's sitting there thinking they can't do it. Be an inspiration.