Jon Venable will cross the stage during Fall 2019 Commencement to accept a bachelor’s degree in geology. This milestone was 20 years in the making, as he left UNC Charlotte in August 1998 just four credit hours shy of finishing.
Venable recounts how he quit his studies in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, to marry his college sweetheart and work full-time with Carpenter Company. Now, two decades later, he will be the 1,000th former student to return to UNC Charlotte through the 49er Finish Program.
The Providence High School graduate first began collegiate studies at UNC Asheville before transferring to UNC Charlotte in fall 1994.
“Initially, I planned to study meteorology, but after discovering the amount of math involved, I decided to switch gears and pursue geology,” Venable said. “UNC Asheville, at the time, didn’t offer a degree in geology, but UNC Charlotte did, so I opted to transfer.”
Venable fondly recalled driving with family through the mountains and coming across rock outcroppings and thinking about how they were formed. An elementary school trip to the Reed Gold Mine had sparked his fascination with rocks and a desire to better understand the Earth’s geological processes.
Earth is in a near-constant state of change. Likewise, Venable’s life also has experienced periods of flux. Most recently, the father of three children dealt with an unexpected divorce and the death of his mother, both within the last two years.
Following his divorce, Venable needed to locate a new living situation for his children. His mother suggested selling her home and using the proceeds to enable Venable, his children and her to live together. They decided in July 2017 to move forward with the idea.
Soon after, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, interrupting their plans. By January 2018, his mother was pronounced cancer-free, so work resumed to combine their households, with Venable locating a new house to purchase contingent on the sale of his mother’s home.
By June, his mother’s cancer had returned, and Venable accelerated efforts to pack up his mother’s belongings and complete their plans.
During this same period, Venable met his now fiancée, Michelle. As they got to know each other, they kept discovering connections. They realized she was three years behind him at Providence High School, lived in the area of the Walmart where Venable worked while in high school and college, and had graduated from UNC Charlotte.
Matilda Venable died in October 2018, and her son is eternally grateful for her sacrifice. “Mom fought really hard, but she left the hospital for a rehab facility where she was placed under hospice care,” Venable said. “She did get the chance to meet Michelle, and I think my mom really respected her, because Michelle often says what needs to be said.”
Venable credits his wife with his decision to finally finish his degree.
“For years, UNC Charlotte would send me postcards about the 49er Finish program,” he said. “Michelle saw one after she and her daughter moved in with my kids and me this past summer. Immediately, Michelle pushed me to find out more information. She opened up her laptop, went to the 49er Finish website and looked up a contact to call. After talking with Debbie Smith, Michelle said, ‘You’re going to do this, and I am going to make sure.’”
Smith, associate director of operations and director of advising for the Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES), which administers the 49er Finish program, said, “Jon needed the typical information about the number of remaining courses, costs and availability before completing a readmit application. Finding options for students who have been out for 20 years requires additional research and advising assistance from academic departments. The Geography and Earth Sciences Department responded amazingly fast, and its answer motivated Jon to move forward.”
Calculus II, the four-credit class Venable originally needed, is now a three-hour course and available online. For the final credit hour and to satisfy the University’s writing intensive and oral communication requirement, he opted for an American Studies class, Southern Foodways.
Venable finds satisfaction in completing his degree, knowing that his degree will set him apart in his career. This is the same message he is delivering to his children.
“My daughter is already doing it, but I tell my other children that the time they invest in their studies now will pay dividends later,” Venable said. “My mom always wanted me to finish. I wish she could be here to see it.”
As they have done with Venable, OASES staff and advisors will continue to seek out students who left short of the finish line and urge them to come back to complete their studies. The 49er Finish program is an award-winning initiative that began in fall 2005. The National Academic Advising Association and the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education have recognized the program for its concierge approach of service and support, and University Business magazine designated it a Model of Excellence.
“We are serious about wanting our students to finish their degrees,” Smith said. “You are still a 49er and an important part of campus.”