URBANA, Ill. – Many students hear “college is the best four years of your life.” A time for learning and building skills, it’s also a time to meet people, make friends, and be independent.
Some students pack those experiences into a much shorter time frame.
“Every year, some students in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES) complete their credits early and graduate in less than eight semesters,” says Caroline Helton, senior academic advisor and recruitment coordinator in the ACES Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE). Learn about ACE majors, scholarships, and more at ace.illinois.edu/future-students. Apply by January 5 if you plan to start the following fall.
Students may choose to graduate early for academic, career, or financial reasons. Although University of Illinois students have resources to track their own progress, they can enlist the help of advisors to help design the best plan based on their individual situation.
“We try to empower them to kind of write their own stories and make their own decisions on their academic progress,” Helton says.
Kate Eathington, one of Helton’s mentees, created her own path to early graduation.
Eathington graduated in May with a degree in agribusiness markets and management, and a public relations minor. She now works as a talent acquisition partner for CGB Enterprises Inc.
“Kate was able to use her early graduation to pursue her dream job right away,” Helton says.
Eathington grew up on a farm in Avon, Illinois, and she’s always been passionate about agriculture. A student in a high school class of 29, she took classes for college credit and started at U of I with 40 credit hours.
“Originally I was planning to get a double major, because I was like, ‘Why would I want to shorten my college experience? I'm going to get the full four years,’” she says.
However, she opted for one major, and took the opportunity to graduate in three years.
“Especially with the way the pandemic hit, I was kind of glad I was graduating early. It wasn't the plan originally, but I think it was a blessing in disguise, and I was able to start my career a lot earlier than I planned,” she adds.
Eathington chose ACES because of the supportive, family-like atmosphere in the college. Beyond her class work, she participated in the National Agri Marketing Association, ACE Ambassadors, and 4-H House Cooperative Sorority.
Nick Schilling also graduated early from ACE. From Waterloo, Illinois, he came to U of I with 18 credit hours, thanks to taking dual-credit courses in high school.
Schilling completed his bachelor’s degree in three years with a major in agricultural and consumer economics and minors in natural resource conservation and international development economics. He subsequently completed the non-thesis Master of Agricultural and Applied Economics (MAAE), a one-year program.
Schilling says finishing early benefited him both from a financial and a career point of view. Many employers were impressed.
“Every single employer I've brought that up to had questions. They want to know more,” Schilling says. “They want to know what I did, what my experiences were, how was I able to do that.”
Shilling now works as a transportation cost estimator for Guidehouse.
Helton adds, “Nick was able to highlight some of his soft skills, such as time management, being people-oriented, and great communication skills, to show how he was able to get a bachelors and masters, and be super involved in activities, whereas many others would have to spend five or six years to do what he’d done.”
Though graduating early may seem intimidating, Schilling encourages students to enjoy college and take things as they come.
“If you're going to rush through college and only focus on the classes, I don't think that's enough because there's a lot of smart people in the world,” he says. “So, you need to be smart and personable. I’d say seek out clubs and the leadership roles, too. That’s extremely important.”