Writing Center
Spring 2005 Edition

A Non-Traditional Student

Jennifer Christiansen
Expository 1010 winner

What do you think of when you hear the phrase traditional college student? Do you think of a young high-school graduate ready to make his/her mark on the world? Maybe you think of young passionate love and partying all night? Or do you think more of the devoted student tucked away immersed in his/her studies? However, not all college students fit into these categories. As a non-traditional college student, I find that my priorities often deviate from those of the traditional college student because of my life experiences.

A traditional college student generally has two major priorities, the first of which is academics. Most often a traditional college student is a recent high school graduate and/or between the ages of 18-25. At SUU, 12 credit hours a semester designates a student as full-time. However, many traditional students take up to 20 credits, which can add up to six or seven classes each semester. Indeed, a study load of that magnitude is enough to make anyone’s mind blow. That being said, obviously a traditional student’s number one priority should be school. Some students may have a part-time job to help with the bills, but the majority of their time is spent going to class, agonizing about class, or studying for class.

The second priority of most college students is the social aspect of the college campus. Many students are single and on the prowl. Not only are they going to class to get a degree, but they are also on the look-out for their next date and maybe even their future soul mate. My brother is a perfect example. He met his wife in a class they had together. They talked a few times in class and that led to a few dates and, eventually, a marriage. Other gregarious students participate in sororities, fraternities, athletics, sport events, dances, and a whole range of university sponsored activities. All in all, the whole social scene is very important to most college students.

In contrast, being a non-traditional student can mean a variety of things. It might mean that students take on-line or continuing education courses and do not actually physically frequent the university campus. Many teachers take on-line courses to update their credentials and never set a foot on the college campus. A non-traditional student may be a part-time student who takes fewer than 12 credit hours per semester. Often, a non-traditional student is simply a student taking courses for fun and not working towards a degree. A colleague of my father-in-law has spent years taking classes he enjoys, but he has never gotten his degree. Generally, non-traditional students are older than the average college student and may be parents who, after spending time raising a family, are returning to school to give it a second try.

I believe that my experience of being a mother of four beautiful children indeed qualifies me as a non-traditional student. Being a mom is a full-time job. When I say full-time, I don’t mean 40 hours a week; I mean 24/7. There are mountains of laundry, hungry mouths to feed, and always a trip to the emergency room. I have soccer games, dance lessons, school activities, sleepovers, and play dates, and, what’s more, I am responsible for making sure everyone gets there on time and is raring to go. Having a family means putting their needs first. If my son is sick, then I stay home with him. If my daughter has an awards assembly, I am there so she can look across the room and see me in the crowd. Their accomplishments are my accomplishments. I am their security blanket, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being a mom and student can sometimes be very complicated, and I often struggle trying to balance my major responsibility as a mother and my responsibilities as a student.

Having a family is also sometimes difficult on a campus where everyone assumes that getting a degree is the number one priority. Often, other students, as well as professors, have a hard time understanding the specific circumstances that come with being a mom and student. In an education class I was taking a few semesters ago, we had a group project to work on that required us to spend time outside of class. Everyone in the group, including two married individuals, could meet at about any time. They were frustrated when I had to always make sure that I had a babysitter before I could commit to a study time. They just didn’t seem to get the fact that I couldn’t just up and leave when I wanted and that I had other responsibilities. Another problem I have is my cell phone. I think it is very disrespectful to have your phone on during class, and I don’t blame professors for getting frustrated about it. Nevertheless, I need to have my phone on in class. I always turn the ringer to silent, but when I get a call, I have to check it because if it is from my kids, their school, or the babysitter, I have to take it. Most professors usually understand my situation, but some just don’t seem to care. I am a serious student, and I don’t mean any disrespect, but nonetheless my first commitment is to my family.

Because I have such a commitment to my family and the stress of going to school full-time was just too much, I decided to only attend school part-time. It sometimes feels as if I will never finish school. I am studying to be an elementary teacher, and in the education department, it seems that everyone's so close to doing their student teaching, getting their degree, and receiving their teaching license. In every class I take, the teacher asks us when we will be doing our student teaching and I always tell them, "If I actually take the time to figure it out, I will surely get depressed and drop out." Everyone usually laughs, but sometimes I really feel that way. Going to school only part-time also complicates things because many of the courses are set up to take in a certain order, within a certain time frame. It is distressing to try to figure out exactly what my academic plan is. For now, I guess it is just this: "Someday I will graduate," and anything more definite than that is just not feasible at this point.

Although I only go to school part-time, the time I spend at school is important to me. I am also older and possess a different mentality than many college students. I turned 30 this past year and thought I was going to have a mental breakdown worrying about my birthday. I survived the “Big 3-0” and resolved that being middle-aged isn’t as bad as I thought it was going would be. I have found that with age often there comes insight, and my reasoning is often different than that of younger students. I frequently notice in talking to fellow students that they may feel that a class is a waste of time. They don’t seem to care if they acquire any knowledge or even if they will perform well in class. Now that I am more mature I despise wasting my time. If I have to take a class, I am determined that I take something useful away from it, and what’s more, I always try to do my best.

I know that not all college students are the same. Some are math majors, others English majors, some are there for the athletics, and others aspire to be famous actors, but most college students, when asked to describe themselves, would say, “I am a student.” Being a student is their main focus and priority. However, my answer would be very different, for I would say, “I am a mom.” My priorities definitely deviate from that of the traditional college student because of my life experiences and because I am primarily a mother. Nonetheless, it seems in this ever-changing world, technology as well as changing life styles may well change what we view as a traditional college student.