Grad gets degree at 40, 20 years after first college class

Andy Braden, shown at the Huntsville, Ala. location of his employer, Holston Gases, in this image taken on Friday, May 29, 2020, graduated with honors from Athens State University 20 years after taking his first college classes. The 40-year-old will have to wait until Aug. 1 to participate in his college commencement. (Marian Accardi/The Decatur Daily via AP)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Twenty years after taking his first college class, Andy Braden has a job, two children and recently received a diploma from Athens State University.

Right out of high school, Andy Braden took classes at Gadsden State for a year and a half, while working at a woodworking business and playing guitar and singing with bands at night.

Two decades later, the 40-year-old Springville native, who now lives in Huntsville with his wife, Meredith, and 6- and 9-year-old daughters, graduated with honors from Athens State University. He’ll have to wait until Aug. 1 for commencement, delayed because of the pandemic.

“I’m still thinking about walking in the ceremony,” said Braden, who already has his diploma. “I think it would be good for my kids to be a part of it.”

Braden earned his degree in business management of technology through determination, the support of his family and the assistance of the university’s Adult Degree Program.

“It goes with what I do right now — business development,” said Braden, an outside sales representative for Holston Gases, a supplier of industrial, medical, propane and beverage gases.

“It was worth it,” Braden said. “I’m glad I got it done and it’s behind me.”

Since leaving Gadsden State, Braden built and installed custom cabinets and furniture for a Homewood business, co-owned and operated a custom retail furniture store in Leeds for almost five years and was a project manager for a homebuilder in Irondale. When the Bradens moved to Huntsville, he was a master craftsman for a cabinet manufacturer and later joined Holston Gases in 2014.

Over the years, “I got locked out of some jobs because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “I don’t want restrictions on what I can do. I want to live a limitless life.”

Getting a degree was a personal challenge: “It’s something I felt I had to do.”

He started taking online classes in 2013 as part of the Adult Degree Program, which was launched that same year at Athens State. He took a break for a couple of years and, when he got settled into his new job at Holston, he returned to school.

He said it was tougher than when he was an 18-year-old student, with both of the Bradens working full time and raising two daughters, and Andy Braden coaching soccer. He studied, read assignments and worked on projects on the weekends, early in the mornings before work and after the girls’ bedtime. He was so anxious to complete his degree, he took four courses in the spring.

After researching programs in the area, Braden took advantage of Athens State’s Adult Degree Program, a streamlined process for returning adult students to complete a bachelor’s degree. Students can receive credit for learning acquired through employment, military training and service, certifications and volunteer service, with extensive documentation of their experience and skills in a professional portfolio.

At least half of a student’s total credit must be academic credit with a grade, though, said the program’s director Felicia Mucci.

“The Adult Degree Program helps individuals finish a degree program by awarding college credit for the college-level knowledge adults have learned outside the classroom,” Mucci said. “We understand these students are often returning to school after an extended absence and have gained valuable real-world experience through a variety of methods, so we make the process as easy and straightforward as possible.”

A student must be at least 25 years of age, have worked at least five years, have some college credit and have never received a bachelor’s degree. Mucci said the ages for ADP students range from 25 to 70.

Since the program began, 200 students have graduated, Mucci said. She said 522 students have been admitted to the program, of which 305 are considered active, meaning they have attended classes within the last year.

Last fall, 31 students were enrolled in at least one class and in the spring semester, 24 students were enrolled in at least one class. For the summer semester, 23 students are enrolled in at least one class.

“The program benefits adult learners by allowing them to gain momentum and finish more quickly, using their experience to their benefit,” Mucci said.

Braden was able to take courses online, meeting periodically with Mucci, and earn 14 hours of credit with a portfolio detailing his past experience.

“I’ve got plenty of experience. I was just lacking” the degree, he said.

Music has been a longtime passion of Braden’s, and he’s performed at some singer/songwriter venues in Nashville and competed last year in an international songwriting competition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing with his song, “The Greatest Ride.”

Now that he’s received his degree, Braden hopes to get back into writing original music again.

“That’s a big part of who I am,” he said.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today