As we learn how to work with traditional and non-traditional students, one of the things we will discover is how similar our needs are. Looking back on my time as a traditional-aged student, I recall I would get excited about campus events when they offered “free” money, clothing or food. When your world revolves around friends and the pursuit of your dreams, fulfilling those basic needs is what is important. I didn’t understand money, clothing and food were means to get me involved in my community, develop leadership skills and sustain me through college.
Non-traditional students are mostly capable of providing for their own clothing and food. But what we need most is the means to get involved in our communities and to develop leadership skills and emotional sustenance through our education. To that end, we need different resources to accomplish the same goal as traditional students.
I’d like to address five services every college and university needs to consider offering to support the success of non-traditional students.
1. Flexible class schedules
Online, evening and hybrid classes are critical to the success of non-traditional students. With increasing numbers of non-traditional students on campus, having degree programs that only possess morning and early afternoon classes keeps us from seeking our own brand of success. It limits our employment possibilities, childcare options, and for those suffering from various conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and chronic fatigue syndrome it may keep us out of school. We also need professors who recognize we have adult responsibilities. We may have professional conferences to attend or have a sick child. A lack of understanding from our professors may be the difference between an A and a C.
2. Evening childcare
Though most communities offer many childcare options, I’ve discovered only a few will offer evening childcare. This becomes a problem for students who need evening classes. At my own university, the lack of evening degree programs leaves us without the data to know if we need evening childcare. Given the importance of using data to establish programs at higher education institutions, this as a problem. As a non-traditional student advisor, I receive questions on evening childcare at least two to three times a week. Higher education institutions must begin meeting this need.
Everyone needs a little help from time to time. I refer students to our campus counseling center regularly. It often makes the difference between non-traditional students staying in school and dropping out. Non-traditional students have more, and greater, responsibilities than traditional students and find themselves needing help with depression, marital problems and managing stress. Balancing work, school and family is challenging, and having professionals offering resources and support to make that balance easier is critical.
4. Networks of non-traditional students
I work at Weber State University’s Nontraditional Student Center. It is a community that makes it possible for non-traditional students to connect with one another and get advice about how to survive college. Many non-traditional students do not feel comfortable socializing with younger students. The network our center provides gives our students a safe place to connect and relax without worrying about ‘giving back’ as other campus programs require. Our students give back by raising good kids, creating success on campus and helping each other to achieve their goals.
5. Peer mentors
These are the guides who make all of the previous steps possible. When a non-traditional student steps on campus for the first time, he or she can be overwhelmed at how much there is to learn and do. This is compounded by the fact that he or she may not feel connected to fellow students. A peer mentor takes non-traditional students by the hand and helps them recognize where they are going, how to get there and who can help them along the way. Peer mentors must be familiar enough with traditional-aged students to help non-traditional students overcome their fears and connect with them in ways that enable each to find value in the other. They must also be familiar enough with their campus to know the additional resources adult students need to find success as they pursue their education, whether that means connecting them to Veterans’ Affairs, Student Leadership or various professors on campus.
After working with non-traditional students for four years, I have heard the need for these programs over and over again. In higher education, we need to listen to the voices of those returning to school. Education is changing beneath our feet and we will not know how to create a system that benefits our society without taking care of our entire student body, rather than focusing solely on the younger half. We must take care of both to create balanced workplaces and relationships between both our young and mature adults in the future. Because if we value our future, we must empower all those who have chosen to create it.
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