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The Three Best and Worst Things about My Non-Traditional College Experience

The Three Best and Worst Things about My Non-Traditional College Experience
An adult student shares her experience of returning to full-time studies and includes some lessons for higher education administrators.

I spent most of my career as a communications manager in the entertainment industry. After a layoff in 2008, I worked on small projects, went on interviews and slowly figured out that what I really wanted was a different career. I longed for a position where I would have a more significant impact in the world. Despite my previous career success, I had never earned a college degree and the positions I wanted required a bachelor’s degree in political science, which I did not possess. The thought of applying to a university in my late 30s? Terrifying.

I started at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina in spring 2009. Navigating full-time studies definitely had ups and downs, but I am grateful for the experiences I had as a non-traditional student. In December 2012, I graduated from UNC Charlotte with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and International Studies with a European concentration, and a minor in Africana Studies.

Onto the ups and downs of university life …

The Three Best Things:

1. Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES):

The Office of Adult Students was the place I visited during my first semester at UNC Charlotte to ask embarrassing questions, as well as a place where I could say, “You will never believe what happened today.” The ladies in the office would smile and tell me they understood, because they had heard it before. My second semester, I began a work-study program in the OASES and became the person who listened to surprised, frustrated and tired non-traditional students when they needed advice or wanted to decompress. I also made friends closer to my own age through OASES and the Non-Traditional Student Organization who understood my challenging new world.

2. Learning and mentors:

I found I really enjoyed being in the classroom, learning and participating. I treated my classes like a job and showed up on time, prepared to work. I spent a lot of time in libraries and at home studying, but it was time well spent. I also had several professors who have become wonderful mentors and continue to assist me in the pursuit of my goals.

3. Studying abroad:

As we age, our flexibility and adaptability skills are often called into question. I’ll concede I had moved into a ‘more comfort, less risk’ stage of my life until 2011, when I studied at King’s College London. The structure of courses and the expectations were very different from those of American universities, but I was prepared for, and embraced, the differences. I also learned that my adaptability skills were firing on all cylinders. As a non-traditional student accustomed to living on my own, I lived in a high-rise dorm with 250 students roughly 20 years my junior, putting a premium on patience and flexibility. I also traveled to many countries on my own where I did not speak the language. I coped with the challenges as well as a fearless 20-something-year-old.

The Three Worst Things:

1. Classroom etiquette:

To say I was not prepared for student behavior in classrooms is an understatement. I’m not sure if it’s because of self-entitlement issues or that most traditional students don’t have much experience in a work environment, but swearing at professors, talking loudly during lectures, being on Facebook, texting, wearing inappropriate clothing — including pajamas and slippers — all occurred regularly, and really shocked me at first. Sadly, by the time a girl’s Skype went off in class, I had acclimated.

2. Financial issues:

I was lucky to qualify for grants and student loans; however, the amount I received did not rise with increases in tuition, parking, health insurance, as well as charges for a future football program I had no interest in. By my senior year, I was fairly worried about making it financially through graduation.

3. Lack of flexibility of courses:

One of the most difficult aspects of returning to school as an adult learner is merging family, school and (often) full-time employment. UNC Charlotte has enrollment of roughly 26,000 undergraduates, of whom 24 percent are non-traditional students; however, they do not offer accelerated programs. Recent budget cuts mean fewer evening and online courses, and those available are typically general education courses most adult learners have already finished. This growing population of students requires more flexibility in course offerings in order to complete degree programs.

When I weigh the positive and negative, UNC Charlotte gave me the opportunity for personal and professional growth. It was quite an experience attending school with students half my age — sometimes funny, shocking, good and, at times, a little trying, but well worth the effort. Now I am in a holding pattern, waiting to hear from the universities I have applied to for global studies master’s programs for fall 2013. I am excited for my next learning adventure, as well as for my future career possibilities.

Author Perspective: