The Family That Won’t Stop Learning

August 9th, 2011

Nona Allen

United Methodist pastor Nona Allen '11 was one of four graduates to speak at EMU's 2011 commencement ceremony.

On a rainy Sunday in May 2011, Nona Allen ’11, representing the Adult Degree Completion Program (ADCP), was one of four graduates to speak at EMU’s commencement. Allen, the pastor of four United Methodist congregations near Elkton, Virginia, was 62 when she earned her degree – an undertaking motivated in part by her desire to inspire her family and congregations to set their sights high.

“If other people saw me at my age going back and getting a degree, they would feel like they could reach for the stars,” said Allen. “I wanted to do it to set a standard for my children and my grandchildren.”

In the crowd listening to Allen’s address that day was her nephew and fellow management and organizational development major, Chad Ellinger ’11 – another ADCP graduate with a reach-high story of his own.

Chad Ellinger

Chad Ellinger '11, who was seriously injured during his service as a Marine sergeant in Iraq, graduated alongside his aunt, Nona Allen.

On November 9, 2004, during a battle in Fallujah, Iraq, an explosion toppled a stone wall onto Marine Sergeant Ellinger. He lay pinned beneath a pillar with internal injuries and a broken arm, pelvis and leg, until other soldiers freed him and dragged him into a nearby school building. After being driven out of the battle zone (a medical corpsman laid on top of Ellinger during the ride, to shield him from incoming bullets), Ellinger drifted in and out of consciousness for the next five days, during which he was flown to Germany before being transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

After months of recovery there, Ellinger returned home to Staunton, Virginia, to continue his rehabilitation. In 2007, he became the first intern in a then-new Virginia Department of Transportation work program for wounded veterans. Ellinger, who still walks with a limp, now works as a contract administrator for VDOT’s Staunton District, where he manages equipment and 28 fuel locations scattered throughout the Valley. He lives in Staunton, with his wife Kascie, 6-year-old daughter Morgan, and year-old son Tripp.

When Ellinger decided to finish a bachelor’s degree, in order to broaden his career options in the future, he was attracted to ADCP because of its good reputation and the prompt and well-organized staff response when he first inquired for more information. Ellinger said his organizational development classes in particular were excellent, providing him with new insight and significant practical application to his job at a large state agency. He also said he learned a lot about how an adult workforce learns and retains information, and how large organizations can, and should, address problems like low morale.

Most enjoyable, though, was being a part of a group of adults facing – and overcoming – the challenge of finishing a college education as nontraditional students while juggling work and family responsibilities. “This day and age, people don’t look for challenges enough,” Ellinger said. “I don’t think you’re ever too old to continue to learn, and the brightest people in the world understand that.”

And for proof, he needed to look no further than at his Aunt Nona, addressing the crowd on graduation day.

“It meant a tremendous amount to me when I found out Chad and I were graduating at the same time,” said Allen (though they graduated together, Ellinger and Allen were in different ADCP cohorts).

As a pastor, Allen said she’s considering following up with a seminary degree.

“Age is only a number,” said Allen, who cites “The Karate Kid,” a film she watched with her grandchildren, and the Justin Bieber song “Never Say Never” on its sound track, as some of her influences. “In life sometimes we give up too soon. We should keep on trying. If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen.”