August 10, 2007

Father-daughter duo earn degrees together

by Tim Crosby


Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A father-daughter duo will walk across the stage on Saturday, Aug. 4, and pick up their degrees from the physical therapist assistant program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Darrell L. and Portia M. McDannel, of Carterville, worked, studied and attended classes together throughout the program. Both said they learned about each other and themselves along the way. And both look forward to the outstanding opportunities in the health care field their SIUC degrees will give them.

"The need for these skills is out there in the area," said Darrell, 45, who left his comfort zone in the world of sales and business management to pursue a better lifestyle for himself and his family when he decided to enroll in the program. "That's very important. But you also hope to do something you like and I've always enjoyed problem solving. I really wanted a career change that would carry me through retirement. This job will allow me to go to work, do something good by physically helping someone and come home at 5 and not worry about the phone ringing and having to be at a meeting in another city the next day."

The physical therapist assistant program prepares graduates to work with patients under the supervision of a physical therapist. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredits the program and graduates are qualified to take a licensure exam in Illinois and other states. The two-year program includes 12 weeks of internship work, plus clinical and classroom instruction.

Undertaking such a course of study was a big step for Darrell, who went to work in the telecommunications business right out of high school and spent the next couple decades building a family with his wife, Julie K. McDannel. His career later evolved into sales and management, and included extensive travel.

He found success, but the round-the-clock nature of his positions and constant travel eventually prompted him to consider a new career. Health care seemed a good bet, but there was one problem: Darrell had never earned a college degree. That meant summoning the dedication and courage to step back into the academic world and facing the uncertainty every mid-career, non-traditional student must face.

He began by taking night classes at John A. Logan College in Carterville, nailing down his general education requirements as well as higher-level science courses, such as anatomy and physiology. After a couple semesters he changed jobs to obtain the more flexible schedule needed to attend daytime classes as well.

As the demands of school grew, Darrell and Julie faced moments of uncertainty.

"There were times I would think, 'What am I doing?' But other times I would think, 'But if this works out, it will be great,'" Darrell recalled. "I was scared to death, very concerned, and that first semester is tough because you're not used to studying and you're in there with kids right out of high school."

While he worked on his general courses, Darrell also applied to enter SIUC's physical therapist assistant program, which is part of the School of Allied Health in the College of Applied Sciences and Arts. His oldest daughter, Portia, was taking classes at John A. Logan College and also trying to determine what profession to pursue. She at first looked into athletic training, but switched her sights to the physical therapist assistant program because of the vast employment opportunities.

As fate would have it, both father and daughter were accepted together. They found themselves in many of the same classes and found ways to motivate one another.

"He really got me focused and studying all the time," said Portia, 22, who also found the program more challenging than she anticipated. "I had to be at class!

"I think it was hard for him, too, at times because as my dad he was so used to taking care of me," she said. "He had to learn to step back some and realize I was a college student now and could take care of myself."

Darrell, on the other hand, saw nothing but positives in the arrangement.

"Attending class together was a bit of a value added to my tuition dollar — quality time with my daughter. Can you imagine having your dad in every class, knowing that your cell phone number is on auto dial if you are not in class 10 minutes early?

"I once asked the professor which of the text books we would be using the most. He replied 'I think you and your wife could share a couple of them.' This didn't go over to well with Portia, she quickly corrected him," Darrell said.

The two studied together, sharing notes and facing written and practical exams that were sometimes "grueling." They found support in each other, and a "friendly competition" unofficially ensued, Portia said.

"I think his grades overall were probably just a little better," Portia acknowledged. "But sometimes mine were better."

Portia also watched as other students in the program began looking to her father for guidance and motivation.

"Being older, he brought a different perspective to our classes," she said. "He knew if you weren't successful in school you wouldn't have too much fun later in life. He has really good leadership skills that I think he developed from all those years as a manager. The whole class kind of relied on him."

Julie McDannel, who works in the Office of the Chancellor at SIUC, said their pre-planning and stepping out in faith is now paying off.

"We're very proud of what he and Portia have accomplished here together," she said. "They bonded a lot during this time, and they both matured in different ways."

Family is important to the Southern Illinois natives, and they will celebrate this weekend with a large gathering of relatives. Darrell's and Portia's degrees will allow them to find employment in the area and Portia's sister, Beth-Ann, was accepted into the radiology program and will start at SIUC this fall, making yet another McDannel into a health care provider.

Other than passing their upcoming state licensure exams, the next big project for the McDannel family is Portia's upcoming wedding to Jonah Fore, a former SIUC football player and 2003 graduate who works as a salesperson for Rend Lake Beverages in Carbondale.

With many in Southern Illinois facing career changes stemming from layoffs or other reasons, Darrell highly recommends going back to school.

"It's not easy in some ways and it can be scary," he said. "But stick it out. It's worth it."