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Family of five in classes at St. Petersburg College

Devenia and Russ Cowper, front, have long told their children, Shane, 17, left, Courtney, 16, and Kiani, 15, that they needed to go to college. “You have to go to college or you are not going to make it,” Devenia says. All that time, the couple likely didn’t expect to become students themselves.
Devenia and Russ Cowper, front, have long told their children, Shane, 17, left, Courtney, 16, and Kiani, 15, that they needed to go to college. “You have to go to college or you are not going to make it,” Devenia says. All that time, the couple likely didn’t expect to become students themselves.
Published Sep. 6, 2013

It gets a little hectic near the end of the semester in the Cowper household.

With Russ and Devenia Cowper and their three teenage children attending St. Petersburg College at the same time, "No one sleeps," said the youngest, Kiani, 15.

The family's situation is unique, said Pamela Smith, a legal services coordinator who has worked at SPC for 13 years and taught Russ last summer.

"I thought it was amazing," she said. "Never have I heard of a husband and wife and three children attending all at once, this is a rare thing for me."

For years, the St. Petersburg couple told their homeschooled children, Shane, 17, Courtney, 16, and Kiani, they were all going to college.

"You don't have a choice," said Devenia, 46. "You have to go to college or you are not going to make it."

The advice came from years of experience running their own businesses and struggling with finances.

Russ, 50, attended the University of Michigan for two years before dropping out. Devenia graduated from high school and swore she was never going back to school.

For a while, they ran their own businesses and did well; they owned a race track in Michigan before moving to Florida in 2004 and opening a tae kwon do academy.

Things changed during the economic downturn in late 2008. The couple had to sell off their business and find jobs. Though Russ got a job working as a boat captain, complications from a knee surgery ruled out physical labor.

The couple's experiences made them rethink their future.

"Without that piece of paper, there are jobs I can't apply for. Without that degree, no one will let you apply for a job," Russ said. "It's a requirement for any job, even entry-level jobs."

Their children understand that.

"They didn't go to college themselves and they struggled a lot with money and stuff, and they don't want us to experience that," Kiani said. "I totally agree."

In 2009, Shane entered the dual-enrollment program at SPC. A year later, Russ started his coursework in paralegal studies, followed by Devenia and the girls.

Russ hopes to become a lawyer while his wife, who is seeking a bachelor's degree in education, wants to be a teacher. Shane aims to get an engineering degree so he can work with Navy submarines. Courtney wants to be an air traffic controller and Kiani longs to be the first female pilot with the Navy's Blue Angels.

Having the entire family going to college at the same time requires juggling and lots of support.

To save money, all five share textbooks and rides. They took advantage of the dual-enrollment program at SPC, which pays for the children's tuition for nine semesters in three years, Russ said.

They help each other with homework, sometimes for the same classes. Russ and Devenia adjusted their work schedules — they hold clerical jobs with the Pinellas County government and the Bay Pines VA Medical Center respectively — so they can take turns with the rides.

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"Honestly, it would be impossible if we were divorced or single parents," said Devenia. "We depend on each other."