Campus & Community

Simmons Celebrates 60th Anniversary of the Dix Scholars Program

The Simmons University campus with the brick labyrinth in the foreground and the main campus building in the background
Photo by Ashley Purvis

What the Dix Scholars program did for me was life-changing and life-saving. It afforded me the opportunity to get a real college experience that was tailored to somebody more mature than the average undergraduate student. I got to go to school and socialize with people older than my kids at the time, and it was an amazing opportunity
— Karen MacKenzie ’10 ’12MSW, LICSW.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of adult education at Simmons. Renamed Dix Scholars in 1993, this program enables adult undergraduates to pursue their educational and professional goals at any point in their lives. We spoke with Simmons’ staff and Dix alumnae/i about the uniqueness of this program and the students that animate it.

Promoting Lifelong Learning

To be eligible for the Dix Scholars program, prospective students must be at least 24 years old, and/or pursuing a second bachelor’s degree. According to Director of Graduate Admission Laura Quinlan, who helped oversee admissions for the Dix Scholars program when she worked in Undergraduate Admissions from 2009 through 2014, “Sometimes life gets in the way, and women may carry burdens that postpone their education…Through the Dix program, individuals who identify as women or non-binary are embraced by a supportive community and cheered on to meet their personal and professional goals.”

Adult education is now celebrating its 60th anniversary at Simmons. In 1993, the program was renamed Dix Scholars after Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802–1887). Dix moved to Boston as a teenager and became an elementary school teacher. She then went on to found or expand over 30 hospitals for individuals with mental illness and served as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War. Dix endorsed compassionate, humane, and rehabilitating care. As a firm supporter of women’s educational rights and an accomplished trailblazer, Dix’s life’s work resonates with the mission of Simmons University and the signature aspects of the Dix Scholars program.

Mary Pura, Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, provides counseling and recruitment for transfer and Dix students. “We have cultivated partnerships with local community colleges,” says Pura. “Students coming to Simmons with an Associate degree from any nationally accredited community college are automatically granted a Simmons University Community College Excellence Scholarship (SUCCESS). This award of $22,000 per year is renewable for up to eight semesters [provided that students maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher]. We also bestow Boston Community Scholarships — which are full-tuition scholarships — to two students per year who have transferred from Roxbury Community College or Bunker Hill Community College.”

Forging Fulfilling Careers

In Pura’s experience, some of the most popular majors/career paths for Dix Scholars are Nursing and Social Work. One of Simmons’ more recent Dix Scholars alums, Kayla Canty ’18 BSN, RN, came to Simmons to obtain her second bachelor’s degree in Nursing: “Being a Dix Scholar was very valuable to me. . . Having a Nursing degree from Simmons has shaped me into the nurse and woman that I am today and I am forever grateful for my time at Simmons and the mentorship that I received!”

Rita Shah ’12 ’14MSW, LCSW entered the Dix Scholars program to study Social Work. Prior to Simmons, Shah had performed a variety of professional roles, including sales analyst and network engineer. Shah realized, however, that she gravitates toward doing community work and leading with compassion. Shah’s training at Simmons enabled her to establish a statewide nonprofit organization called the Friends of Indian Senior Organization (FISCO). This social work agency “supports Asian Indian senior citizens residing in towns in the northwestern part of the Boston Metro Region. . . with the mission to reduce isolation among seniors.”

Reflecting back on the support she received as a Dix Scholar, Shah says that the program “helped me make a difference in my community, specifically in the lives of senior citizens. I enjoy being able to connect them to resources that can help them with healthy aging.”

Students’ Stories

The stirring determination that animates Dix Scholars makes a profound impression. When Quinlan held monthly admissions info sessions, she would invite Dix Scholars alumnae/i like Karen MacKenzie and Rita Shah to share their stories. She recalls being brought to tears by their personal anecdotes. “I found their passion and drive so moving, and I could see just how much their stories influenced other women considering going back to earn their bachelor’s degree.”

Kathy Strand ’81MS, Associate Director of Admissions from 1999 to 2012, likewise found students’ stories very compelling. “The spirit of Dix lies in affirming your personal journey and not judging it,” says Strand, who now works as an Independent Educational Consultant. “We all have elements of unpredictability in our life narratives, but Simmons realizes that education has no expiration date. Moreover, Dix Scholars’ presence and perspectives enhanced the experiences of other Simmons students, as well as the faculty and staff who worked with them.”

Pura reads Dix Scholars’ application essays with profound interest. “I love hearing about their motivations, and how they have gotten to this point. . . It is a profound privilege to read their personal statements; people pour their hearts out in these writings and speak their truths, struggles, and triumphs. . . And in recent years, we have seen more applicants who are refugees from countries like Afghanistan or Ukraine. The strength and resiliency of our students speaks to what we strive to achieve every day in the Simmons community: access and inclusion.”

During her 13 years working with Dix Scholars, one applicant in particular stood out for Strand. “One day, a woman in her late 20s from Atlanta came to my office. She had this incredible life story that was not reflected in her transcripts,” recalls Strand. In speaking to the young woman, Strand learned that she had been caring for a disabled mother and supporting several younger siblings. She worked at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where she had been voted Best Employee of the Month three times over. Strand advised the prospective student on the next steps, and she was ultimately admitted to Simmons and thrived as a Dix Scholar.

“This is not to say that admissions standards are negligible,” clarifies Strand, “but we value stories more so than other institutions. We put applicants on a path to fulfill their aspirations and goals, which is more involving than typical admission and recruitment offices.”

MacKenzie also animated Simmons with her interesting story. Although she had been successful in business and real estate, she did not feel passionate about her work. After experiencing a family tragedy, MacKenzie decided to study Psychology as a Dix Scholar. “I enjoyed all my professors, but I derived particular inspiration from Associate Professor of Psychology Geoff Turner. He introduced me to attachment theory, which undergirds my psychotherapy practice today. When I think about where I am now and how Dix helped me get here, I have to credit the amazing Dr. Turner.”

A Feeling of Belonging

Although Dix Scholars like MacKenzie typically have various family and professional obligations, Simmons helps them cultivate a sense of belonging on campus. For MacKenzie, interacting with younger students was one of the most vital aspects of her Dix Scholar experience. “As a student and mom in my 40s, I could have felt old, decrepit, and antiquated, but instead the students just energized me.” She became friends with many Dix Scholars and more traditional classmates, including a young woman from Afghanistan whose parents escaped the Taliban. “She referred to me as her ‘American mom,’” recalls MacKenzie.

Quinlan’s interactions with Dix Scholars also underscore a feeling of belonging: “We spoke with older students in their 50s and 60s. They told us that they felt welcome at Simmons and developed a new sense of self, even if their classmates were much younger. These students felt very supported.”

There are also various perks afforded to non-traditional students. The Commuter Student/Dix Scholar Lounge, located on the ground level of the Main College Building (A-075), enables students to socialize and form a community. Dix Scholars may also become members of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society, which renders them eligible for scholarships that support adult learning.

As a bonus, some Dix Scholars graduate from Simmons alongside their own children. For example, Shah obtained her bachelor’s and MSW degrees while her daughter completed the Doctor of Physical Therapy program. Likewise, MacKenzie relates that “my daughter [Jennifer MacKenzie DiRico] got her MBA at Simmons the same year I got my MSW [in 2012]. We both walked together at graduation, which was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.”

Simmons staff cherish the memorable and rewarding aspects of their work with Dix Scholars. “It is gratifying to see the entire process through with our Dix students,” remarks Pura. “I enjoy being their guide and utilizing the knowledge I have to help them pursue their dreams.”

“For me, Dix Scholars constitute a very special population,” says Strand. “We offer them guidance to succeed and to find a life that is full of meaning. . . I look back at my time working with Dix Scholars as very formative, and the admissions office continues to carry on the incredible mission of the University. Even as things get crowded competitively, Simmons meets the needs of our time.”

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Kathryn Dickason