Supervising Non-Traditional Students Within a College Student Employment SettingStephen Cucchiara | Director of Student Activities and Community Service, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Traditional-aged student admission in higher education is being paced by an ever-growing population of non-traditional students. About 74 percent of all 2011-2012 undergraduate students possess at least one characteristic consistent with non-traditional students (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015).
Non-traditional—or post-traditional—students are generally defined as learners who are 25 or older, and enrolling in higher education at a later point in their academic journey. But this definition does not fully encompass who they are.
Non-traditional students represent an array of characteristics, including age, educational biography (a student’s path to higher education and reasoning for pursuing a degree), mode of study (interactions between commitments such as occupation, academia and home responsibilities), and entry into higher education (taking the traditional channel of elementary to secondary; secondary to postsecondary, compared to special admission or occupational requirement) (Schuetze and Slowey, 2002). By 2019, it is predicted that non-traditional student enrollment will increase by 23 percent, which will close the demographic gap with the “traditional” student campus majority (Soares, 2013).
With non-traditional students now a major demographic in higher education, institutions need to find ways to welcome them into the university community like any other student. What better way for these students to become immersed in campus culture than by getting a job on campus?
Student employment provides a valuable point of engagement for non-traditional learners by offering opportunities for co-curricular involvement, soft-skill building and practical workplace knowledge acquisition. Much of the learning that occurs through student employment can be transferred to professional contexts and various career paths. On-campus job opportunities—positions like campus managers, resident assistants and orientation leaders—give learners a chance to engage in co-curricular life, which leads to stronger academic success and serves as a strong predictor of persistence through college (Tinto, 1997). However, non-traditional students may have different expectations of student employment than traditional students. Assuming they have different reasons for taking on campus employment, are there practices that university officials should adjust to better accommodate for non-traditional learners’ desired work experience?
Six current and former non-traditional university students offered their take on how to provide a meaningful approach to student employment. They were asked a series of questions about their experience as student employees at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. We wanted to know their thoughts about entering the university workplace, including the challenges they encountered and their advice for supervisors. Four themes emerged from these dialogues, which offer some useful insights into cultivating an engaging workplace environment for non-traditional students.
Age and Background Does Not Matter—Provide the Experience
A non-traditional student who applies for a role in a collegiate office may be perceived as overqualified or preoccupied with making money, but further discussion with our respondents revealed that they struggled to connect with their colleagues. What these students want is to develop a strong connection to the campus while building networks and broadening their collegiate experience. Similarly, supervisors need to be conscious that certain accommodations or changes in management style may not be needed.
Provide opportunities for non-traditional students to interact with their coworkers and immerse them in the office culture. One student said, “It is easy to be a student who takes classes and goes home at the end of the day, but you miss out on a very positive experience if you do that.” Another student mentioned, “Sure, I have home obligations but I am looking to try some of the things I did not have a chance to do the first time I was a student.”
Supervisors should not overthink non-traditional student commitment. Allow their experience to occur organically, while providing them with a channel for asking questions, exploring ideas and truly learning the culture.
Encourage Skill Sharing
For many non-traditional students, their journey to higher education has given them a chance to develop additional skillsets. This distinguishes them from those who take a traditional route to enrolling in higher education. While certain campus jobs focus on the task at hand, others allow for more creative autonomy and room to leverage previously learned skills. If flexibility is possible, encourage it. According to one student, “It was not about the pay rate. It was more about finding a connection on campus that allowed me to offer a skillset that was not already being used in this setting. It was something I love to do, so it was a perfect match.” Another student said, “For me, it gave me the opportunity to put into practice some of the digital media skills I was studying.”
Transparency of Position Expectations
To help non-traditional students quickly understand the work environment and supervisor expectations, involve other student workers in the interview process. When asked about any preconceived notions of a student employment position, one non-traditional student said, “I did not want to join the student activities team and end up being the team mom. I was concerned that the pendulum could swing the other way and my younger teammates would see me as an outsider. Knowing the work environment and inter-office dynamics was helpful in making the decision to work for Student Activities.” This greater transparency creates a united work environment between non-traditional students, supervisors and other colleagues.
Be Authentic and Set Aside Biases
Younger professionals in higher education can feel intimidated when hiring someone ten to fifteen years older. They enter with more professional experience, may be used to a certain supervisory style and may not enjoy the developmental activities that comes with student employment. The key to altering this mindset is to remain authentic in your conversations, revert back to office norms and best practices, and create a space for listening. Address any discomfort from the outset by asking non-traditional learners about their preferred methods of supervision and communication. “Chances are,” one non-traditional student said, “if we are feeling any anxiety about being older or having a different backgrounds than our peers, a supervisor treating us differently may only serve to accentuate those anxieties.” Another student said, “Keep it real. We understand the greater business purpose.”
Student employment remains an effective channel for non-traditional students to engage in co-curricular life. This involvement complements academic learning and enables students to persist through to graduation. It’s important to remember that non-traditional students come to campus with an array of experiences that can be effectively leveraged in student employment positions. As higher education practitioners, be confident in your skillset and allow them to understand the department culture. They are making the decision to pursue student employment, which means they want to work on campus rather than in the corporate world. Define expectations and be transparent about the work environment. This co-curricular involvement is critical to their success.
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Chaves, C.A. (2003) Student involvement in the community college setting [online]. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED477911.pdf.
Shuetze, H.G. and Slowey, M. (2002). Participation and exclusion: A comparative analysis of nontraditional students and lifelong learned in higher education. Higher Education, October 2002, 44 (309-327).
Soares, L. (2013). Post-traditional learners and the transformation of postsecondary education: A manifesto for college leaders. Washington, DC: American Council on Education. Retrieved from https://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/Post-Traditional-Learners.pdf.
National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) (2015). Retrieved November 4, 2018 from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2015/2015025.pdf.
Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. Journal of Higher Education, 6, 599.
Author Perspective: Administrator