Back to School: A Look at the Lives of Non-Traditional Students
Dressed in a black cap and gown, walking across a stage in front of thousands of their colleagues with a sash over their heads and diplomas in their hands — people dream of their college graduation from the days of their youth. It is a day held in the highest esteem. The ensuing party, full of thoughtful gifts and congratulatory gestures, is often also anticipated — but while being the subject of praise and adoration for a day is nice, the reason graduating from college is such a momentous and meaningful occasion is much more layered.
Society hails the importance of a college education as a ticket to upward mobility and a new kind of necessity for a prosperous life. Since the turn of the century, college enrollment has risen dramatically, as high school diplomas and, more recently, even bachelor’s degrees, have lost their clout. A college degree has become almost an assumption, a taken-for-granted symbol of accomplishment, because contemporary culture claims that everyone should — and does — attend college and earn one. But that viewpoint fails to include an important, and significantly rising, segment of the population.
Nontraditional students, often defined as adult students over the age of 25, have taken over college campuses yet are still overshadowed by their more typically aged counterparts. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 38 percent of the 18 million students enrolled in college in 2007 were classified as nontraditional. However, despite their growing presence in the classroom, nontraditional students across the higher education landscape lead largely invisible lives. Often overlooked by college administrators and fellow students alike, nontraditional students tend to be lost in a sea of youth.
Helen Maynard graduated from the University of Michigan this past April, but she wasn’t part of the incoming freshman class in the fall of 2012. When Maynard took her first steps on campus, the year was 1983.
A Cleveland native, Maynard faced financial troubles from the outset, as out-of-state tuition costs roughly double that of in-state tuition, and they didn’t subside as time went on. By the time her senior year rolled around, she worked three jobs simultaneously — an ice cream parlor, a retail clothing store and the campus recreational sports department — and held an unpaid internship position at the Community Television Network, the local TV station in Ann Arbor. As could be expected, Maynard struggled to handle the balancing act, eventually burning out and being placed on academic probation. The chips were heavily stacked against her, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, a production opportunity that paid reasonably well came up and she had to make a decision. So, a few credits shy of graduating, Maynard dropped out.
Time passed, but still facing an uphill climb to pay back her student debt, Maynard decided to move back to Ohio and put her retail background to use while attempting to catch the attention of local TV crews. One day, on her way home from work, one of the videographers she knew from the local ABC station was passing by in a truck. When he saw her, he yelled out the window, telling her to call the head of the station. They had an opening on the desk. With a salary and benefits, she thought she would be able to pay off her debts and finally go back to school.
But then her professional life took off, and those plans had to be put on hold. After moving up the ladder with promotion after promotion, working her way from producer to assignment editor to assignment manager, Maynard began to realize that the idea of finishing her degree had faded away.
“You stop thinking about it,” she said. “And it’s just not on your mind anymore.”
When Maynard did finally return to the University in 2014, it wasn’t as a student. She came because she had been selected for a Knight-Wallace Fellowship, a program for mid-career journalists to complete a self-directed program of study, participate in professional workshops and travel abroad within a single academic year. It was that experience that brought the idea of earning her degree back to the forefront of her mind.
“I hadn’t thought about it in years, and being here on campus made me think about it again,” she said. “I was so struck by all the great work that young people were doing and the enthusiasm and that feeling of you can go do anything and there’s every opportunity, and I had lost some of that.
“It’s an amazing environment being on campus, the amount of energy that you have, the variety of viewpoints, this unlimited opportunity to learn. It just re-kindled something.”
So Maynard reached out to the Center for the Education of Women, a University organization that provides various services and financial support to women and nontraditional students in an effort to empower them to achieve educational success and degree completion. After applying and sharing her story with them, Maynard earned a spot as a CEW Scholar. It was that scholarship that enabled her to enroll as a student again for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Through fellowship events and professional workshops held by the CEW, Maynard found a community of contemporaries that could relate to her experience as a nontraditional student and its inherent challenges. While some of her coworkers were amused or confused by her decision to return to school in her early fifties, her colleagues in the CEW understood her reasoning and encouraged her to carry on. She knew it was the right decision for her, and their support eased her transition back into the world of academia.
The University she found upon her arrival was starkly different than the one she left three decades ago. The technological revolution at the turn of the century, for example, made it harder for her to keep up with her technically-skilled classmates who had grown up in the digital age.
On her first day, she showed up to class without her laptop because she had read a CTools notification the night before from the professor that told the class not to bring them. But when she looked around the room, all of the other students had their laptops out. As it turned out, the professor had told them not to bring them, except on the first day in order to complete an online assessment.
“(Before) if you didn’t know by the end of the day or the class, you weren’t going to find out,” Maynard said. “No one was calling your dorm (saying) they wanted you to read X instead of Y. Now I’m getting emails and notifications on CTools at 11 o’clock at night.”
When she started school at UM, laptops didn’t even exist. Even desktop computers were a rarity. To access the Internet, students had to wait in line at the Michigan Union to use the small computer lab in the basement. Now, there are computer labs in most academic buildings on campus. But they often sit untouched, as students nowadays often prefer to use their laptops in their dorm rooms.
For Maynard, the power to choose the life you want to lead is a sentiment she’s found common among her younger peers, and it’s one that resonates with her. She hasn’t always had the choice to determine how her life would pan out, so she understands its value. But she did decide to come back to the University and finish her degree, and it’s a choice that has paid off.
“I didn’t realize that there was a hole,” she said. “It gives me a new confidence to say, ‘OK, I don’t have to figure out an answer to that question if it comes up.’ It gives me pride to say I’m a graduate of the University of Michigan. It’s like hitting a giant reset button. I have the same issue as everyone else who graduated this year: ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ I’ve got a lot of life left.”
Leslie Barroso graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a minor in sociology when she was in her late twenties. Though she was on track to graduate in four years, she dropped out of college during her senior year to join her family’s insurance business. But after an experience filled with more lows than highs, Barroso decided to switch course.
After she earned her degree, she bypassed the workforce and chose to start a family instead. She got married and moved to a small island in Maine, where she spent the majority of her adult life raising her children as a stay-at-home mom. It wasn’t until three years ago that Barroso returned to Ann Arbor, but college wasn’t part of her plans initially.
She had always considered continuing her education and earning a master’s degree, but since she could never figure out what to study, the idea fizzled out. Living in Ann Arbor again, the allure of the University was hard to resist. So, fate stepped in.
Volunteer work has always been important to Barroso, and moving to a new place didn’t stop her from getting involved in the community. She spends a considerable amount of time at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, and she also works with young women in recovery to help ease their troubles. Then, she met a few social workers in her circle of acquaintances, and that’s when it hit her. She wanted to pursue a master’s degree in social work.
So she enrolled in the School of Social Work in the fall of 2016, which means she is only two weeks into her 16-month long program; however, she is already learning how to navigate the classroom environment.
In one of her classes a few nights ago, the professor told the class to partner up on their own, and she had a sense that she would be the odd one out because of her older age.
“I just knew I was going to let everyone else pair off and I would take who was left because nobody flocked over to me,” she said. “And I didn’t take it personally. I understood it. They’re forming friendships in their own group.”
While it might seem like it would be hard for her to find a sense of belonging, Barroso says that it’s quite the opposite. Her email inbox is loaded with offers to join various student groups and attend certain organized activities. But she has openly chosen to opt out of those opportunities — a choice frequently made by nontraditional students — because she simply doesn’t have enough time in the day.
“To be honest, I don’t expect to find a sense of community here,” she said. “I have such a busy and full life outside of this — and I put a lot of that on hold to go to school. I really need the information they can teach me, so that I can do what I want to do afterwards.”
Barroso wants to work for an agency as a therapist in direct practice, hopefully at the University Health System, while also developing a private practice on the Internet to provide herself with more flexibility. While it may have taken her a while to figure out the next phase of her career and life, she said she knows now that it has all worked out for the best.
“You only get one lifetime, so it took me this long but, oh well,” she said. “All these things converged to say, ‘This is what you want to do,’ and I think I made the right decision. I do have those feelings that I wish I had done it 10, 20 years ago, but not much further than that because I really loved the life that I lived between then and now. I’ve been really lucky.”
Brittney Williams also graduated from the University this past April, but her road back to college was considerably shorter than those of many nontraditional students. She left originally during her junior year after her mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease, and she had to go home to Alabama to serve as her mother’s primary caretaker and help take care of her younger siblings.
She came back five years later, in the summer of 2015, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sociology, along with minors in Afroamerican and African studies and community action and social change through the School of Social Work, where she is now a master’s student.
Though Williams was in her late twenties by the time of her return, her undergraduate classmates seemingly couldn’t tell the difference. She said until she actually disclosed her age, many people just figured she was a fifth or sixth year senior. But they responded well when they did eventually find out the truth.
“I think that people looked at me in a class mom sort of way, and so they were like, ‘You’re so wise,’ ‘You’ve experienced so much life,’ and I kind of embraced that,” she said. “And so much of my nature, because of my caregiving experience, is about loving on people and making them feel supported, so it was fine with me.”
While Williams felt accepted by her fellow classmates, it wasn’t the same as having people who could fully understand her situation. It wasn’t until she participated in a focus group of nontraditional students at the Center for the Education of Women that she felt a sense of comfort.
The experience made her openly wonder if there were any student organizations where these dialogues about the trials and tribulations of nontraditional students existed. When there were none to be found, she resolved to take matters into her own hands.
So she founded the Michigan Organization of Non-Traditional Students, her self-described “brainchild,” through the Center for Campus Involvement. She convinced the CEW to become its sponsor, so it became a sponsored student organization, and she served as president.
Initially, the organization struggled to find its footing and recruit members, for several reasons. Williams noted there are many logistical issues that can prevent nontraditional students from participating in student groups, such as having busy schedules, raising children or commuting to class. On top of that, there is often a mentality that nontraditional students are supposed to focus solely on academics, not engage in social activities.
To combat these issues and get the organization off the ground, Williams reached out to the CEW for help. Together, they shifted the mission from a social gathering place to an educational resource center, implementing workshops about dealing with being the same age as the professor, doing group work with younger peers and finding resources that aren’t as socially accessible to them, and they resonated strongly with many nontraditional students.
As an example of how the group helps connect nontraditional students, Williams said if UM’s Counseling and Psychological Services utilized social media as a key outreach strategy to connect to the digital generation, a nontraditional student in his or her late fifties would have a much less active presence online, if at all. Therefore, an older student would have less access to resources and support from the administration, a fundamental problem Williams noticed across the college landscape.
“How you think about age is that at certain points in life you have different levels of self-sufficiency,” she said. “I think half of it is making assumptions about what people know and what people need who are older students and half of it is about not wanting to come off as condescending.”
While Williams has since stepped down as president to concentrate on life as a graduate student, MONTS will continue to carry on its mission to create a safe space for nontraditional students with a new executive board and a budding membership.
“It’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s nice to have something that you conceptualized and worked so hard to establish continue to grow. It’s great.”
Oftentimes, when we talk about college, we see something specific — the typical experience of someone 18-24, navigating their first years away from home. But for a growing number of non-traditional students on campuses, that isn't the case. Though they take the road less traveled, they reach the same ultimate destination, and if these three women are any indication, the journey is worth the wait.