By Tiffany King

At the age of 54, Tammy Fields graduated with her Bachelor of Business Administration with a concentration in general business from the College of Coastal Georgia in December 2020. It was a long journey to graduation day, but she made it, and she is paying it forward by establishing the Fields Non-Traditional Student Scholarship to help other non-traditional students who are just like her.

Fields was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved with her family to New York when she was five years old. Growing up, she set her heart on having a career in business and accounting, so she applied to Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, New York, to learn more about business. She earned a full scholarship to Baruch College, which houses one of the top business schools in the state. However, between her high school graduation in June, and the first day of college classes in August, Fields decided to take another route instead and join the United States Army.

"I kept saying that I will get back to what I wanted to do originally, which was get a business degree," Fields said, "but life intervened in so many respects. That was the first stop in my long journey."

While in the military, Fields was a finance specialist, served at several duty stations including Baumholder, West Germany prior to the wall coming down, and received an honorable discharge in 1989. She eventually moved back to Charleston after leaving the military and was introduced to her now husband John Fields Jr., by a beloved aunt. Her husband served in the Navy, and when his naval base was closing, he and other service members were given the option of working at Kings Bay, Virginia Beach, or Washington State. The Fields decided on Kings Bay and have lived there ever since.

Fields still dreamed of earning her degree despite the constant stops and starts. While in Charleston, Fields enrolled in classes at Trident Technical College, but could only do one semester because she was pregnant with her daughter Kellie. She started taking classes again after her daughter was born in Georgia, but then she was pregnant again with her son John Fields III. After he was born, she started taking classes at Georgia Military College on the base.

"Three years after my son was born, my husband had to go back out to sea, so that meant no more school. I could not take care of two small children and my husband not be there for support," Fields said. "When he came back for shore duty, I took more classes, but motherhood was still going on, and I couldn't balance it all. So I said, 'I'll wait until my kids get older and start their own career, then I'll go back to school.'"

Getting her degree was put on hold. She then spent many years working in different capacities, including various positions at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Fields now works in the Formulation Branch, Budget Division at FLETC as a budget analyst—a position she's long wanted.

"I love what I'm doing now. I've done a lot of different jobs at FLETC, but I've gotten back to what I've always wanted—numbers and business," she said.

On the Road to a Bachelor's Degree

Fields says her family inspired her to finally go back to school. Her husband earned a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees, and is now pursuing his doctorate in theology. Her daughter went to college, then law school, and is currently Assistant District Attorney for Glynn County. Her son, who also served in the military and has taken college courses, is now a pipefitter at Kings Bay.

"I was supporting my husband's endeavors in school, and I was supporting my children. I took a backseat to help them get what they needed. My daughter said, 'Mom, it's your time,' and I kept thinking that I wasn't smart enough and that it had been too long. Then my friend at the job told me to do it and I watched her get her bachelor's degree. Everyone was getting their degrees," she said. "I had taken courses throughout my life and finally said, 'Okay, I have to do it.' I dipped my toe in to see how it would go. The College of Coastal Georgia never made me feel like an anomaly because of my age. They were very supportive."

In fall 2016, Fields started her first class at the College. She was initially an accounting major then switched to general business. Fields mentioned two professors in particular who encouraged her throughout her time at Coastal, Assistant Professor of Management Dr. Craig Gentzle, who is now retired, and Associate Professor of Accounting Dr. James Benton. When Fields' daughter became very sick while in law school, she took time off to care for her. Gentzle and Benton encouraged her to enroll in online classes so that she could continue earning her degree.

"Both of them kept supporting me and told me what I had to do to take online classes because I was taking mostly in-person classes," she said.

Her supervisors at FLETC also supported her efforts in going back to school. FLETC Deputy Director William Fallon and FLETC Assistant Director Bryan Lemons are also part-time criminal justice instructors for the College's School of Business and Public Management. They understood the value and importance of furthering one's education. FLETC also offers a tuition assistance program that reimburses employees for the cost of courses related to their job, Fields said.

On the first day of class, Gentzle informed the students about the many scholarships available at the College. Since then, Fields applied and received scholarships every semester that covered most of her costs and used FLETC's tuition assistance program to help pay for books. Fields didn't qualify for the Pell Grant because of her job earnings. However, she pointed out that the majority of her salary went towards her children's education and other necessities, like the mortgage. The scholarships she received from the College paid for her education.

"The school really supported me, and I wanted to do something for people like me who don't have a lot of options," she said. "Some look at your bottom line and believe that you have the money to pay for school and don't realize all the things you have to do with your finances."

The Fields Non-Traditional Scholarship is for non-traditional students with a preference given to students 50 years of age or older with a minimum grade-point average of 3.0. The recipient is awarded $1,000 at a rate of $500 per semester for one academic year.

Fields thought about everything she went through to earn her degree and wanted to provide the same opportunity for someone else.

"It takes off a lot of stress when you're not worried about finances and can concentrate on what you're learning," she said.

Making it to the Finish Line

In December 2020, Fields finally earned her bachelor's degree in general business. With her family there to support her—the same way she supported them—Fields graduated summa cum laude with honors.

She attributes much of her academic success to the help of the student tutors. Fields recalled how her tutors simplified the course curriculum and retaught her the class material.

"If it weren't for them, I would've either failed or gotten a C. I wouldn't have graduated summa cum laude," she said.

Fields also thanked Gary Strysick, Academic Services Specialist for the Academic Tutoring and Instruction Center (ATTIC), for connecting her with tutors that were willing to work around her job schedule.

"Tutoring is definitely a highlight of the school. Tutors are a valuable asset. They really love teaching and really want to help students," she said. "They light up when they help students and want to give back. You can't be a tutor and don't care. They are students just like you and have that extra nugget from taking the same class previously."

Her bachelor's degree has been added to her other educational milestones, including earning a Legal Secretary Certification of Completion in May 2011, an Associate of Applied Science in Paralegal Studies from Purdue University Global in April 2014, and an Associate of Science Core Curriculum – Science Degree with honors from Coastal Georgia.

Fields has definitely enjoyed her experience at the College. When asked if she will pursue her education further, she answered, "I'm thinking about it, but that's only if the College of Coastal Georgia has a master's program."