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Bringing Adult Students Into The Mix

Bringing Adult Students Into The Mix
Non-traditional students can often feel left out of events on campus, so institutions must take creative steps to ensure they become a part of the campus community.

As student affairs practitioners, how frequently have we heard students make assertions such as, “I really can’t make that meeting because I have other responsibilities at home,” or, “That time does not work for me because I have to pick up my kids from school”?

These statements are completely understandable, but what about ones that sound like, “I really am not interested in getting involved because there aren’t many activities for folks my age,” or, “It sounds like you have a great student life program, but I don’t think students would like someone of my age joining the club.”

These latter statements can be more infuriating due to our passion to develop student growth opportunities in the co-curricular setting. To justify these statements, we create reasoning around why such choices are made. The most common of them all is, “These are non-traditional student challenges which require different approaches for engagement.” The question then centers on how we can identify non-traditional students and these so-called methods of engagement.

A definition widely used to identify our non-traditional student community is a student 24 years or older, who has spent at least one year in a non-academic setting between high school/last college experience and their current collegiate enrollment, but who also holds multiple roles and responsibilities outside of academics such as parenting and employment (Dill and Henley, 1998). Does that truly identify our non-traditional students today? What about students aged 18 to 25-years-old who commute to campus, are enrolled part time for reasons other than work or children, or who may have even delayed their education (Hoyt, et al 2010)? Would a student who earned a GED certificate, rather than a high school diploma, constitute a non-traditional student (Choy, 2002)? What is important to recognize is that today’s student population has a multitude of characteristics, leaving age as just one identifying trait of non-traditional students. It is easier to define a population of students that have specific needs versus using single characteristics.

Non-traditional students, therefore, need active engagement and practitioners who are going to center activity within their areas of comfort, routine and academic interests. While this may not be practical for many student program offices, there are alternatives. At the University of Colorado (UCCS), located in Colorado Springs, a major goal is the creation of intentional programming toward commuter and non-traditional students. As the campus programming leader at UCCS, the Office of Student Activities (OSA) felt it was time to evolve with the campus culture. In an effort to create a positive and influential co-curricular experience, one that values the diversity non-traditional students provide to the collegiate environment, OSA created a “non-traditional events coordinator” position.

The goal of this position was two-fold: provide active engagement in student life through campus programming initiatives brought directly into their environment(s), but also create a non-traditional student representation within OSA for the various realms of university program planning. One of the best features was that students interested in applying didn’t have to be non-traditional as defined by “the book.” In response to questions surrounding position requirements, my answer was simple: I posed a question about their own perspectives on college life, explaining that any single characteristic can have a context created around it that would support the identity of non-traditional students.

Some definitive goals for the position would be to meet commuters in parking lots and provide breakfast near shuttle stops, provide programming during the lunch hour, seek out graduate student interests and incorporate family-friendly programming within many of the university’s traditional events. This family-friendly programming was created to support students who wanted to bring their children or other family members to a specific event.

Other programming initiatives include shuttle bus events, commuter and parent appreciation weeks, partnership with the parent and family programming office and collaborative efforts with the University’s Family Development Center. This change for OSA is creating opportunities in three ways. The first is that it developed a broad non-traditional program model that will align with specific student characteristics that also incorporate age and family life. The second is that it provides an opportunity for a student to research and gain an understanding of the common issues facing an expanding non-traditional college student population. This will help them grow fundamentally in terms of personal development, but also support cognitive reasoning surrounding this genre of programming. Most importantly, this continues to make OSA the focal point in the co-curricular setting by actively engaging those who would not necessarily seek out this support in order to create a stronger collegiate experience.

In higher education today, movements and trends may dictate how student affairs practitioners shape their goals. My theory is to remain evolutionary by recognizing trends while they are forming. Stay ahead of the curve and be willing to experiment with new initiatives. Most importantly, put yourself in the student community and listen to what students want. Then, allow students themselves to initiate these changes. This supports the developmental practice we all preach about. As a programming office, take the lead in these initiatives and do not hesitate to partner around campus as well.

Let’s continue to support the changes that our college environment faces and share unique ways of developing this assistance.

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