Wendy Mantz is grateful for two things — that she waited to go to college and that she listened to her husband about going back at all.

Mantz admits that this is an ironic thing for her to say, given that she, manager of 1st Constitution Bank’s Plainsboro branch, likes to encourage her co-workers to go to college at every turn. And it is ironic because growing up the East Windsor resident so hated school that she routinely hunted for new ways to convince her parents to let her stay home. “I think if I had gone right out of high school I would have dropped out,” Mantz says. “I just hated school that much.”

When she graduated from high school in 1994 Mantz considered being a court reporter but instead applied for a job as a bookkeeper for Shop Rite — which is the same job her mother has had for about 20 years at Acme. But Mantz got an OK check and liked working with money and numbers, so she discarded plans for court reporting and settled in, not giving school a second thought. Without a single push from anyone.

Mantz, nee Jugan, did not grow up in an environment that cherished education. Her family was always full of hard workers — her father worked in a factory for years, her mother has a side job at a Quik Chek, and her 72-year-old grandmother still works — but no one ever pursued higher education.

Nor did they push her to try it. “I really wish they had,” she says.

Luck for Mantz came in the form of a young man. Bob Mantz came from a family that not only values education, it makes a living at it. Mantz’s mother is a teacher in Metuchen and his father a principal in Perth Amboy.

It didn’t take long before they married, and she left Shop Rite for a teller job at Hudson United Bank, while he put his bachelor’s from TCNJ to use as director of staffing for NovaSoft. And though she got promoted to head teller within a year and was ensconced in a new family that loved education, Wendy Mantz stayed away from school for 10 years.

By 2004 Mantz was working for 1st Constitution and her husband, who founded PrincetonHRConsultants.com in 2001 as an online recruiting and executive placement agency, was starting to see a slow-down in business. So he did what any sports fan would do — he started a sports blog, BobsBlitz.com. He had also spent the better part of the previous decade nagging his wife to go back to school. One day, reading something he was writing for his blog, Wendy noticed that Bob was a pretty damn good writer, actually, and the thought hit her — he’s smart. And he’s right.

Mantz’s first class in 10 years was a summer algebra course at Mercer County Community College — one of those courses that packs 15 weeks of mathematics into a five-week boot camp and manages to weed out two-thirds of the people who start it. After the first day she reacted like a lot of people would. She cried her eyes out and wanted to quit. Unsympathetic, her husband told her that this is what college is, and to just keep going. At the end of the semester Wendy Mantz was one of six students to complete the course. It had started with 20.

A curious thing had happened, too, Mantz says. She learned that she loved — actually loved — working with numbers and money. She also saw the value in being promoted. So Mantz stayed with it, and this December she is expected to complete her associate’s degree in accounting from Mercer and move on in the following semester to Fairleigh Dickinson’s accounting bachelor’s degree program through Mercer. The schools partner, allowing students from the area to matriculate as FDU students but attend courses at West Windsor campus.

And by the way, the girl who hated school has never gotten anything but an A since she decided to go back.

Professionally, Mantz says, caving into her husband’s nagging has paid nice dividends already. First, she does not actually pay to go to school — 1st Constitution covers it. This is a major reason she has assumed the nagging role (albeit a gentler one) with “a lot of the girls at work.”

If you get a shot at a free education, she says, there is simply no reason not to take it.

Second, Mantz has been regularly promoted, from basic teller to assistant vice president and branch manager.

She also now goes out on almost all of 1st Constitution’s business calls and is learning the ins and outs of loan processing. An intimidating prospect at first — her reaction to the number-drenched printouts was, “Oh my God!” — Mantz says she now understands how to see through thickets of figures and find what she needs. Ultimately, she plans to earn her CPA and perhaps start her own firm.

Mantz is part of an increasing swell of professionals who are heading back to college to stay on top of their careers. Just last month the Daily Record in Bergen County reported that the demand for adult and continuing education programs in much of northern New Jersey has risen in inverse proportion to the decline of the economy.

Several other news sources in the state have reported growing enrollment in job skills programs in particular — resume skills, social networking, and interviewing skills.

Serious professionals, too, have come to understand the frailty of the present job market and are calling on every advantage to stay where they are, or even advance. And that includes formal education.

Mantz doesn’t plan on leaving the bank any time soon, but she does want to earn all the credentials she can get.

Her bachelor’s degree is still a few years away, but she is content to stay where she is for a while. 1st Constitution has been good to her, and she wants to be able to advance in the company.

She also needs to hang around in order to convince “the girls” of the importance of higher education.

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