The average age in Jennifer Nahas’ cosmetology class is 16. At 41, she knows she stands out. In fact, to many throughout the East Valley Institute of Technology, the Mesa woman is known as "the adult student."
"I feel like I’m in high school again," Nahas said. "I’m odd man out, and it’s a transition. But I tease them every day and tell them I’m 19, a senior held back for a while."
Beginning in January, Nahas — who has gone to graduate school and worked 10 years as a freelance Hollywood video producer — won’t be such a rare commodity at EVIT, a public career and vocational school where most of the students are teenagers.
A change in state law now allows EVIT to enroll students older than 22. The school plans to add four classes in January, and two more in February. Within the next few years, EVIT hopes to grow its current 122 adult students to at least 1,500, on a campus that now holds almost 3,000 high school students.
While it’s possible for adults and teens to take the same courses, the school’s goal is to enroll most adults in night courses, said Georgia Lappas, a former community college dean and alternative school teacher who was hired a month ago as director of adult and continuing education.
When EVIT opened at 1601 W. Main Street in Mesa in 1991, the plan was to immediately have adult students as well as high school students, said spokeswoman Lynn Strang.
However, after enrolling adult students the school learned state law restricted students older than 22.
So the school focused on expanding its high school programs. Then last year, business leaders contacted Rep. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, about changing the law so they could send employees to EVIT for continuing education skills.
Rob Menasci, manager of Henry Brown Pontiac GMC at 1600 W. Main Street, said the idea would be beneficial for businesses as well as adults who could dramatically increase their salaries by learning a trade.
"Usually people, as they get older, they’re a little bit more understanding what they want to do as a career," he said.
Rep. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, the bill’s original sponsor, said the legislation was amended after concerns were raised about the safety of high school students on the same campus as adults. So the law requires security guards to be near classrooms, and requires that EVIT will run a background check on every adult student.
"We wanted to try to make reasonably certain we’re not getting some 35-year-old pervert who thought it would be really swell to be in classes with young students," Yarbrough said. "Some of my fellow conservatives had the greatest reservations about having these younger students with older students."
The state will not subsidize students older than 22. Tuition is $60 per seat hour, which averages about $5,000 for an average two-year program, though some can reach $8,000.
EVIT will only accept adult students who have a general equivalency diploma or high school diploma.
Yarbrough said he had concerns that EVIT would compete with local community colleges, which have been struggling for funding.
"It wasn’t my goal to try and turn EVIT or other (career and vocational schools) into mini or quasi community colleges," he said. "These are all trade kinds of classes, not the things offered at most community colleges."
Chris Chesrown, spokeswoman for the Maricopa Community College District, said community colleges are in full support of the change.
"Anything that promotes education, we’re in favor of," she said.
While some EVIT programs, including auto mechanics and computer design, are also offered at community colleges, Chesrown said she doesn’t expect the colleges to be financially affected if students attend EVIT instead.
Kathy Szablowski, 42, of Scottsdale, said she already has a position awaiting her at The Phoenician resort when she finishes her aesthetics certification at EVIT.
"It costs a lot less, and we really work," she said as she massaged a patient’s forehead.