Challenging tradition

The diversity, equity and inclusion effort initiated by the University is centered around the goal to create an environment where each member of the community can thrive intellectually, personally and professionally. From Nov. 4 to Nov. 13, the University hosted the Diversity Summit, a series of panels, open forums and lectures that exposed institutional policies and cultural stigmas hindering the University’s mission to achieve this desired environment. Though people representing an array of racial, religious, academic, economic and physical-ability identities shared their experiences, one small community at the University was not accounted for in the conversation: non-traditional students.

According to a 2002 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, non-traditional students possess at least one of the following seven characteristics:

1. Delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that he or she finished high school)

2. Attends part time for at least part of the academic year

3. Works full time (35 hours or more per week) while enrolled

4. Is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid

5. Has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but sometimes others)

6. Is a single parent (either not married or married but separated and has dependents)

7. Does not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not finish high school)

There’s a continuum from minimally non-traditional to highly non-traditional, depending on how many of the characteristics a student possesses.

Educational attainment is an element of diversity. To gain a glimpse of the experiences of non-traditional students and inquire about inclusive efforts for that population on campus, I spoke with Michael Seifert and Justin Villanueva. Seifert, 34 years old, is a senior majoring in political science. Villanueva, 35 years old, is majoring in general studies. Both men are non-traditional undergraduate students at the University. Both had a love for learning, but didn’t quite realize this interest until later in life.

To the working world and back

Seifert wasn’t one of the strongest students in high school and was more interested in making money than pursuing higher education after graduation. After graduating high school, Seifert decided to work at Ford Motor Company. Subsequently, from 2002 to 2010, Seifert ran a series of businesses — from a building maintenance company, to an airport transportation service company and, finally, a rental property business.

After the 2008 recession, Seifert’s rental company started to have some trouble. Seifert was frequently in court, navigating issues such as evictions and blight violations. Being in the courtroom was inspiring for Seifert.   

“I would see attorneys coming in and they would do a terrible job,” Seifert said. “One attorney didn’t come into court because the client didn’t pay him, and I thought that was unjust. I thought I could do a better job as an attorney.”

Seifert’s experiences in court motivated him to return to school and pursue a bachelor’s degree in order to ultimately achieve his goal of attending law school.

In 2012, Seifert finally sold all of his properties. He was 31. However, he was still hesitant to return to school after previous disappointing attempts. While Seifert was operating his businesses between 2002 and 2010, he was also in and out of Macomb Community College and Oakland Community College. This time around, he wouldn’t be balancing working full time with school.

“I didn’t have any pressures (to choose between work and school) because I wasn’t working,” Seifer said.

Though his family doubted he could complete a degree and his counselor at Henry Ford Community College thought his chances of being admitted to the University were slim, Seifert was determined to finish his education.

By winter 2013, Seifert started his first semester at Henry Ford Community College and received a 4.0 grade point average. When I talked with Seifert, he described himself as a determined person.

“I had a goal of transferring somewhere. I had the goal of going all the way to a four-year degree,” Seifert said. “I discovered that I liked school, and I reminded myself that I wanted to become a real estate attorney.”

While at Henry Ford, Seifert was accepted in the Phi Theta Kappa honors program and graduated with an associate degree in general studies with an overall 3.69 GPA. Seifert indicated that his GPA made him feel prepared to move forward with his goals.

“That’s when I started looking at (the University). I felt confident I could transfer then. I never thought I could be in academics … For once in my life, I wanted to be at the best and be the best in academics instead of being at the bottom of the class. I know Michigan is the best,” Seifert said.

Seifert was accepted to the University in May 2014 and began working toward his degree in political science that spring. Seifert will be finishing his four-year degree in a mere three years.

Constructing a new future

Villanueva has been a construction worker for the past 15 years. He currently works full time while pursuing his major in general studies at the University. He married his wife shortly after graduating high school. At the age of 22, Villanueva’s wife enrolled him in classes at Henry Ford Community College.

“I did really poorly in high school, but I always loved learning,” Villanueva said.

It took Villanueva 12 years to obtain his associate degree. Balancing a demanding work life with a wife in graduate school and two children while going to school was, and still is, a challenge. Despite the duration of time Villanueva spent at Henry Ford, he excelled academically, which motivated him to “take the next step” and apply to the University. He applied in winter 2014, but was denied due to a shortage of prerequisite classes he still needed to fulfill. After completing the prerequisites, Villanueva reapplied and was accepted in the winter of 2015

When I was a kid, I watched Michigan football, and I always thought it was a really awesome school, though mostly for sports. It wasn’t until I really got into academics that I realized that the University was an outstanding academic institution,” Villanueva said.

After graduation, Villanueva plans to continue with his job, but recognizes that his earning potential will significantly increase with his degree.

Trials to traditions

Though both men have achieved their goal of enrolling at the University, attending school has not come without its challenges. Transportation, generational gaps between students, professors and graduate student instructors, and schedule conflicts between work and class are a few of the trials Seifert and Villanueva have had to face.

Seifert feels he could have received more institutional support in learning how to navigate the University. He taught himself how to maneuver through campus and Ann Arbor on his own. Though the financial aid office was helpful in providing Seifert financial assistance, he didn’t know where he could find other specific resources that would cater to non-traditional or transfer students.

“I don’t feel there is a structured support system, because I don’t know where to go,” Seifert said.

He suggested that a monthly or semesterly meeting for non-traditional students would help.

“I don’t even know who non-traditional students are. It would be nice to have a non-traditional student space or center. I don’t want to be outcast as a second-class student.”

Villanueva feels he has had a generous amount of support throughout his process.

“The University has been great about grant money,” he said. “I feel very supported from the faculty. Professors will alter their office hours sometimes to meet with me in the evening to accommodate me and my work schedule.”

However, he suggested that the University offer more evening classes and schedule family-oriented events to demonstrate that the campus is welcoming to various student lifestyles.  

I would really love it if there were a group or organization that had an event where students like myself, with families, could bring our partners and kids to U of M. I would love if the University were to create more avenues for that,” Villanueva said.

Villanueva understands why the University may not be focusing its efforts on non-traditional students: “I can see (the University) is not paying attention to people like me because there are not many students like me … I feel like they are not trying to attract students like myself. (But) there are so many talented people that are in my situation that would love to come to U of M. There are an overwhelming amount of students who fit my demographic who are going to college, but they are not going to U of M. They are going to the Phoenixes, the Easterns, the Oaklands and the Walshes of the world.”

The University must consider increasing efforts toward places for non-traditional students. An increasing amount of young people are attending two-year institutions and working prior to pursuing enrollment in a four-year university. The National Center for Education Statistic report that 38 percent of the 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25, and 25 percent are over the age of 30. The proportion of all students over age 25 is projected to increase by 23 percent by 2019.

Tangible Solutions to Increasing Inclusivity

Michigan-Pursuing Our Dreams, a program under the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, offers the opportunity to create connections among transfer and non-traditional students. Currently, Christine Wylie is the coordinator for M-POD. The state, the University and Washtenaw Community College collectively fund the program.

Though the marketing for M-POD caters to students coming from WCC, the program aims to attract diversity to the University from various outlets by supporting academically and economically disadvantaged students. This includes students from non-college preparatory high schools, people who have been in the workforce prior to attending postsecondary education, students with families, first-generation students and students who come from low-income backgrounds. These students, though non-traditional, have the academic skills to attend the University, and M-POD provides the support to ensure retention and graduation for their unique situations.

M-POD offers one-on-one counseling to assist in the admissions process such as navigating the Common Application, bi-monthly meetings about topics like financial aid, student organizations and study abroad options, and events that encourage networking among current and former transfer students. Wylie hopes transfer students can utilize all that M-POD and OAMI offer to make the transition process smoother.

“When students feel more comfortable about a university, they are more likely to apply and maximize their experience,” Wylie said. “We want them to know that OAMI is their home away from home.”

In the context of the University’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, Wylie noted, “There has been some consideration for non-traditional transfer students, but there is much, much more that we can do. Even having a dedicated space. (I believe) they are working on it in LSA. We (OAMI) have the space here, and those coming from WCC know about it and like it.”

The University is the home away from home for many students, and it’s important that the administration is inclusive of the various communities that exist on campus. Existing means of institutional support for non-traditional students should be promoted more frequently and intentionally.

Non-traditional students, like Seifert and Villanueva, have important contributions to make to the University. Creating a gathering space, promoting the accessibility of institutional support and encouraging a culture that accepts and is amenable to differences are steps the University can take to better include non-traditional students in our community. Having a support system is important for all students, especially non-traditional ones.

“Everything doesn’t happen how you expect it. If you are persistent and don’t give up, you can still achieve success no matter what age. I did it. I’m 34 and I will graduate in December. Don’t let anybody discourage you,” Seifert said.  

Similarly, Villanueva concluded our interview by stating, “The one thing the University should know about me is that I am willing to work just as hard as everyone else. I just really need the opportunity … For other non-traditional students: Keep going. Don’t ever stop. Don’t ever give up.”

If you are interested in learning more about transfer students, you can attend the Community College Interdisciplinary Research Forum panel discussion on Friday, Dec. 4 from 12 to 1 p.m. in the Tribute Room (1322) at the School of Education. Current Rackham graduate students will be speaking about their varied pathways from community colleges to graduate programs. The presenters will address the key barriers and potential supports to successful navigation of such a path, the role institutions play in supporting or hindering students and share their experiences.

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu.

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