150 students pursue Rutgers undergraduate degrees through Bunting Program at Douglass Residental College

Bunting alumna Lisa Kaado received her undergraduate degree from Rutgers in 2003 at age 42.
Photo: Nick Romanenko

'Not to minimize the traditional college experience, but it’s very different to go to college when you have a family and a job. Life happens.'
– Lisa Kaado

Jennifer Lagomarsino was nervous to start college in her late 40s. But after being laid off from her position as IT director for a blood center in Monmouth County in 2011, she knew it was something she had to do. 

“The person under me had a college degree and I didn’t. So, they let me go,” says Lagomarsino, a mother of three daughters, two in college and one a college graduate. 

Now, at 50, Lagomarsino is a senior at Rutgers majoring in human resources management. 

“I walked into the first day of class and everyone thought I was the professor!” she recalls. “I wasn’t sure how my younger classmates would react to sitting next to a 40-something-year-old mom, but they warmed up when I started sharing my job and networking experiences in the classroom.” 

Lagomarsino and approximately 150 other women ages 23 to 65 are pursuing their undergraduate degrees this year through the Mary I. Bunting Program at Rutgers’ Douglass Residential College. 

The program, which bears the name of Mary Ingraham Bunting-Smith, the Douglass dean who established it in 1959 before becoming the fifth president of Radcliffe College in 1960, recognizes the needs of women who wish to complete their undergraduate degrees later in their lives and careers. 

“This was one of the first programs of its kind and it’s one of the best in the country,” says Jacquelyn Litt, dean of Douglass Residential College. 

Litt says the program’s strong support system, particularly the ongoing networking opportunities  offered to current and former “Buntings,” as they affectionately call one another, helps more mature women “get into a groove” and thrive at Rutgers. 

No special application is required; once a student enrolls at Douglass Residential College, she is automatically considered part of the Bunting program if she has been out of high school for five or more years.

“It takes courage to come back to school after many years,” Litt says. “It’s such an awakening for these students and it’s important for us to support them and allow their talents and aspirations to grow.”

For example, Lagomarsino spent a week at Merck gaining glimpses into the real work of human resources professionals, a highly personalized externship experience facilitated by Rutgers alumna Sue Panacek.

“I guess I’m still shocked that people have been so willing to help,” says Lagomarsino. “Finding your way around such a large institution can be intimidating, but I have people I can call for advice, who will help me and push me.”

Douglass dean Mary Ingraham Bunting-Smith established the program in 1959 before becoming the fifth president of Radcliffe College in 1960.
Program students and alumnae credit the Bunting Lounge, a designated, swipe-access-only space in the Douglass Campus Center, as one of the most vital components of the experience and a key to their personal successes.

Bunting alumna Lisa Kaado recalls the lounge as a place where she connected and bonded with other women in the program. 

“It’s where we shared our experiences and information and built community,” Kaado says. “It’s what made our connection so strong. We wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to have a campus community. Non-traditional students usually just commute in, take class and leave.”

Kaado describes herself as a “bored and contemptuous” teenager who left high school and got her GED at 16. More than two decades later, after earning an associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College, she transferred to Rutgers, graduating with honors in 2003 at age 42. 

“Not to minimize the traditional college experience, but it’s very different to go to college when you have a family and a job. Life happens,” says Kaado, who studied political science at Rutgers.

While pursuing her degree, Kaado struggled with health and financial issues, including a prolonged custody battle. 

“Sometimes it was all so overwhelming and hard to believe you can keep going,” Kaado recalls. “I didn’t have two pennies to rub together, but my Bunting adviser told me, ‘You’re not leaving school!’ and found a scholarship for me. I certainly wouldn’t have made it without the support of the program and the people in it.”

Today, Kaado teaches ESL courses for international students and works as a college admissions consultant. As the founding president of Bunting Connections, the program’s alumnae network, she’s on campus two or three times a month to support current students in any way.

“We remain involved because we’re living examples,” she says. “We let current Buntings know, ‘We did it and you can, too.’”

Most Bunting students take two to three years to complete their undergraduate degrees as many have transferred to Rutgers from community colleges with associate’s degrees, according to Rebecca Reynolds, assistant dean and director of the Bunting program.

Bunting advisers, Reynolds says, provide individualized counsel and career support on top of the advising students receive through their Rutgers undergraduate schools; but it’s the students who really  bolster each other.  

“They’re each other’s cheerleaders because they are sensitive to the challenges and crises related to home life. Sometimes, I visit the Bunting Lounge and I’m just in awe of how much they encourage one another,” she says.

Students in the Mary I. Bunting Program are supported by scholarships through the generosity of The Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation and other donors.