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Trying to Find a Place on Campus

AUDIO | Trying to Find a Place on Campus
Extracurricular activities may help postsecondary students to explore their interests, but they’re rarely geared toward skill building or scheduled to allow non-traditional students to participate.
The following interview is with Jo Emanuelson, a non-traditional student at Christopher Newport University. Emanuelson, who writes for the university’s student newspaper, The Captain’s Log, recently penned an article discussing her experience as an adult student pursuing a postsecondary credential. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on the integration of non-traditional students into campus communities and discusses the separation that exists between most adult students and their traditional-aged peers, both in terms of their interests and the opportunities available to them.

1. As a non-traditional student, how do you feel you fit into your campus environment?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really fit in. I don’t live on campus, I don’t live near campus, I don’t hang out at campus after classes; I just do my classes and then I come home.

It’s not really a community for me. It’s just a place where I go to school.

2. What do you see as some of the biggest differences between your college experience and that of your traditional-aged peers?

Mostly what I see with traditional students is that they don’t take the classes as seriously in many cases. I don’t know if it’s because they’re not personally paying for the classes or if they just feel that they’re still in high school — that sort of mentality.

I’m using my GI Bill to go to school and it’s really not an option for me to skip because I don’t feel like going to class or to drop classes because I don’t like [them]. I take classes, I go to the classes, I do the homework and I don’t take it lightly. It’s important to me to take it seriously. It’s a shame to see so many students who just blow it off because they don’t care.

I’m still pretty young … but I feel like I have a lot of world experience compared with most of these students. A lot of the kids that I know, they’ve lived here all their lives, they came to college right out of high school, they’ve never really had a serious job or any life experience outside of school. So, it gives me a very different perspective on the school environment.

3. Do you think life and work experience change the way you approach your education?

Absolutely! I see it all the time where [traditional-aged students] don’t really want to be at school. They’re going because that’s what they’re supposed to do and it’s what their parents told them to do.

I had the option to just stay in the army if I wanted to, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to do something else with my life and in order to do that I have to go to school. If I don’t take it seriously, and I don’t get good grades, and if I don’t learn everything that I need to learn, then what am I going to do the rest of my life?

There isn’t the option to just go and move back in with my parents because I’m pretty sure my husband would be upset about that. I live, and have lived, independently since I was 18, and that’s not something most of these kids can understand. They can still ask their parents for money to pay bills and that’s just not an option [for me].

An education is a way for me to get a really nice career to be able to take care of myself. When my husband and I do decide to have children, I want to be able to take care of them without having to go to someone else to get help because I’m not ‘adult enough’ to handle it.

4. What can adult students do to knit themselves deeper into the fabric of their campus community?

It takes a lot of effort because most of the sorts of things that are supposed to give a better community are dorm life or Greek life — the sororities and the fraternities. I don’t really have any interest in any of that.

I’ve tried to join clubs but mostly I stick with honor societies if I can because, well, if you’re in an honor society, that’s usually a good sign. You end up getting in touch with other students who may not be non-traditional students, but they’re taking school seriously because it’s an honor society; you get invited into those because you’re doing well in school and you’re taking it seriously. I’m also obviously writing for the school paper.

But it takes a lot of work because I have to go in the school after class, spend time away from my family and away from my home, and make the extra effort to just get down to school for meetings or whatever else is going on for events. It takes effort and sometimes it’s worth it and sometimes it’s not, but you have to try. I try to make friends with students. I definitely try to make friends with professors because I have a lot more in common with them than I do with the students.

You can’t just sit around and expect the community to come to you. You have to go to it and you have to make that extra effort to take time out of your day and schedule and find something that you can do that is interesting to you and worthwhile and, if they don’t have it, then you have to make it.

5. What kinds of services or programs could the institution put into place to accomplish their goal of integrating adults into the campus environment?

Most of the problems I have with the types of student activities they have are that they’re not very well timed and they’re all geared toward younger students. There will be a water balloon fight, something silly where everyone just comes and goofs around. Or tailgating at a football game, which is supposed to be fun and exciting, but I’m not a football person and I don’t want to come down to the school on a Friday night when I could be on a date with my husband. …

I’ve thought about it and if they could have childcare available, that’s usually helpful, [and also] if they did events on Saturdays. If they did [things like] job training or something that’s actually useful and not just [events where] everybody gets around to goof around. … If I’m going to take time away from my family, away from my home and away from my job … it can’t be just to throw water balloons. It’s got to be something useful or something that’s definitely interesting.

My school occasionally does events. They’ll have guest speakers come in to talk about different career fields and authors come in and talk about books and film directors come in to talk about their movies. There’s a lot of interesting stuff, but it’s just scheduling; they usually schedule it so it’s the evenings during the week instead of maybe something on a Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon that people with families could actually make time for.

The trouble with trying to create institutions or environments to build communities is they tend to just force people to hang out together but it’s not always what people are looking for in a college experience.

6. Given what you just said about all of the events on campus being geared toward the 18 to 22-year-old community, and the scheduling for weekday nights when those with families can’t really participate, do you feel adult students wind up being treated like second-class citizens on campus?

I’ve had that feeling sometimes. I don’t think it’s anything the administration is doing on purpose or anything. The non-traditional student body is so small that, in most cases, it’s not worthwhile to gear huge things toward that group.

But there are parts where I feel left out. … The newspaper did that a couple of weeks ago; they took the editors all down to New Orleans to go to this great [weeklong] writing conference and that sounded really cool, but there is no way I could do something like that because I have a job and I have a family and I can’t just leave. I’ve thought about studying during one of the overseas programs they do — they have exchange programs during the summer — and that would be really great and really expensive and, really, two weeks, three weeks, maybe a month and a half, away from my husband and I can’t do that. It’s just not reasonable.

But they put so much pressure for applications, for scholarships and things that you have all these extracurricular school activities and I feel sometimes that my job and my family are my extracurricular activities. I spend so much of my time at home studying for school and then they want me to keep going back to school for clubs or to join this organization or join that one because it will look good on my resume. Except, do you know what’s going to look good on my resume? It’s that I had eight years in the army; that’s what’s going to look good. Not that I was in some writing club or that I was in some sorority. I don’t understand the pressure there is to join extracurricular activities when they’re not really job skill-building oriented. They’re just a bunch of kids coming to hang around and talk about their interests. I don’t see any of them as being functional or useful, just silly.

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