My first college experience was over twenty years ago. I was 15 and had just finished my sophomore year of high school. Even though I had not yet graduated, I was fortunate enough to be part of a program for high school students who had been recommended by their English teachers. The class was a fiction writing course of approximately twenty students. We stayed in the dorms and attended class during the week, returning to the safety of our homes and parents on the weekend. We did have a list of policies to follow but outside of class very little supervision. The only exception was a midnight curfew in the dorm, which my roommate and I managed to violate one time within the first two weeks which resulted in almost being kicked out of the program in the first two weeks after a verbal lashing by our professor. Nevertheless, he cut us a break, and we behaved better. I finished the course earning a B and three credit hours. This was probably the closest I ever came to having a “typical” college experience.
My next venture into college life was the summer after I graduated. I had not been a stellar high school student, so part of the condition for my acceptance was taking a summer course to prove that I could handle it. This time I took a philosophy course and once again managed to pass the class with a B. However, I realized that my focus really wasn’t on academics and that it would be a struggle to prioritize. Whether it was selfishness or maturity that motivated me, I had a long discussion with my parents and decided to delay pursuing a college education until I was ready.
By the time I returned, I was no longer a traditional student. It had been nearly three years since I graduated high school, and in that time I had managed to get married and give birth to a son. It was his birth, the ups and down of a rocky marriage, and a dim future that led me to the conclusion that I would need to go back in order to be able to give him or myself any sort of meaningful life. I jumped in full time taking 5 courses. I still had not decided on a major, but I knew that it was the right time. Despite no support from my husband, I was able to take care of my 1-year-old son and be a successful student, earning A’s and B’s. For the first term, my mother would watch my son while I was in class. About halfway through the term, he had to have a major orthopedic surgery, and I completed much of my studying by his bedside while he recovered. The second term I had to put him in daycare three days a week. I spent many late nights typing out papers on an old typewriter. I wasn’t able to engage in any social activities or empathize with my fellow students. I felt very alone as I navigated the academic rigors of college, but I never thought about just how different I was.
I had planned on returning the next semester, but my parents had moved over a thousand miles away. My marriage continued to disintegrate, and when my husband was laid off, I felt that it would be nearly impossible for us to survive or for me to continue my classes unless I had more support. We moved to Florida, and I waited for over a year to return to school. Nevertheless, I was more determined than ever to succeed, so when I did return, I jumped in full time. Now, not only was I married and a mother, but also a good 5-6 years older than my fellow students. My life experiences had forced me to mature quickly, and I didn’t have the same distractions as those who shared the classroom with me. My second full year of college was filled with 5-6 classes per term, a full time job at McDonald’s, and the emotional turmoil of a broken marriage and subsequent separation. I moved back in with my parents for help. I kept my job for two reasons: first because I had no financial support from my estranged husband and two because I wanted a real reminder of why college was so important. Every day as I would look at my 4-year-old or work the drive-thru, I was reminded that I did not want the rest of our lives to be a struggle. That was perhaps my best year in terms of grades. I earned nearly a perfect 4.0, with the exception of one horrible physical science class where I earned a B.
After completing enough coursework to earn and A. A., I transferred to a university. At that point I had decided that I wanted to become an English teacher. The transition between majors and schools created a slight problems as I had not completed some of the coursework I would need. This required me to continue my enrollment of 5 classes per term in addition to some summer classes. Before it all began, I had taken leave from work to spend the summer with my son; I decided not to return knowing that the demands were too much. Nevertheless, with persistence and determination, and the support of my mother who cared for my son while I was in class, I was able to complete the rest of my degree in two years. During that time I sat by my son’s bedside after more surgeries and divorced my husband. Although there were a few students in the program like me, I was very much alone. I spent little time on the bustling campus and never had the time or ability to participate in any of the activities. I did not share the dating woes and gossip of many of my peers nor attended the parties. It wasn’t that I was not invited, I just had other commitments at home. Many of my peers could not understand that or step into my mindset. Although it was lonely at times, it was also good that I did not have the distractions that other college students face. I had a much more tangible goal than many of them- to be able to graduate and support myself and my son. That is probably one of the many reasons I was so successful as a college student. I earned all A’s and B’s (with the exception of one C). I completed my degree in 4 years total, and I knew what I was doing after graduation.
So here I am again, 13 years after earning a bachelor’s degree, returning to the same university in order to earn a second. It won’t take much time as I only need 8 classes, and technology has advanced so much that I will be able to complete most of the coursework online. I am a different person now. Not only do I have ambition, but I also have the real-life experience of teaching for nearly a decade. I am re-married, and my son is almost 20, pursuing his own college degree. One thing that is similar is that I have a 3-year-old at home, a little girl. My perspective has changed in so many ways from being a parent and a professional, and I will be 40 in less 17 days. I am a non-traditional student once again, but this time so are many of the students in my online classes. There are people who work jobs and raise children. One is a single mom of three kids with a 9-7 job. Another is a married father with two young children who lives hours away. The online courses are filled with non-traditional students who each have different stories. Most are trying to balance a life of family and work with the demands of school in the hope that when they finish they will be in a better place.
I don’t mind being a non-traditional student. Sometimes it can be lonely, and it is difficult to empathize with the needs and concerns of the more traditional- this makes group work a special challenge. Honestly, it is all I have known really. And I attribute a large part of my success to my circumstances in life that made me non-traditional.