Last week, as I walked on stage to receive my associate’s degree, I told my classmates I was trading my veteran’s cords for honors cords. It is this very transition that marks me as a non-traditional student. I remember a time when I handled school, volunteer service and family drama while earning As and Bs. That ended when, as I was planning my wedding, I received a call saying I would be deployed to Iraq in three months.
This was my first “set-back” experience as a non-traditional student. I didn’t know what to do and my friends didn’t know how to help. I felt paralyzed and numb. I spent my precious study time escaping the stress through video games. I did manage to prepare a new apartment for my bride, but I couldn’t deal with school; I went from maintaining a 3.45 overall GPA to having a 2.6 after that semester.
This derailed my education for nearly two years afterwards and set me back almost two semesters.
It has been six years since that time; I have deployed again and learned hard lessons from both my schooling and my deployments. Through my experiences I found employment as a peer advisor, helping other students to avoid making the same mistakes I did. After all, it does us no good to recognize challenges without developing solutions to face them.
I’d like to share solutions to the three most significant challenges I see non-traditional students facing.
1. The Balancing Act
One challenge of being a non-traditional student is balancing school, work and family. I’ve known students who could do full-time school, full-time work and raise children all at the same time. I am not one of those students. You might not be one either, and that’s okay. Recognizing whether or not you can take on this significant a challenge is an important step. But what both the “superstudent” and I need are support networks. I didn’t have an adequate support network when I left for Iraq and, as a result, I failed several classes.
Find people in your life who can help to balance the various roles you need to fill. Having family members watch your kids while you take a test, or a babysitter to tend to them while you are at work, are vital parts of this network. Most campuses have centers where students can learn more about the resources their school offers, and it is in those offices that you can build a scholastic network to learn from during your college life.
2. Handling Pressure with Grace
Non-traditional students feel pressure to be supermen and superwomen handling school, work, and children with the grace of a ballerina. They often forget how much work goes into developing that grace, and that even the graceful still fall. When you get poor grades after struggling in a class, your self-esteem takes a hit — and it makes it that much harder to succeed in the future. Every student struggles in classes from time to time, though, and it’s through our struggles that we really come to understand our coursework.
But remember that you never have to struggle alone. The most graceful and successful students are those who seek out help with the hard classes. Find a tutor or a friend who understands the subject. Start a study group for your class. And don’t be afraid to contact your teachers. Students who build relationships with their teachers build roads to success, because their teachers know best how to help them become successful.
3. It Takes Longer Than You Think
Perhaps the biggest challenge of being a non-traditional student is the ability to accomplish school on your own terms. Before I started college, I joined the military (I served a one-year deployment) and I served my church for two years. I remember starting school at 24 years old thinking by 28 I would have my degree. It’s been a rude awakening to realize I won’t have my bachelor’s degree until I’m 33. This decision wasn’t made on my own terms. And most non-traditional students don’t have eight years to put into an associate’s degree.
The best advice I can give here is: don’t try to rush your education. Though sometimes it may feel slow, find your pace and maintain it as you move through school. Rushing your education doesn’t do you, or anyone else, any good. If you can’t take the time to do your best, it might be worthwhile to reconsider school during that semester.
It is through facing these challenges and applying the solutions that we are able to get through our undergraduate years. Though it might not feel like it right now, few things in the world build your esteem the way getting your diploma will. Besides, these tools aren’t just for getting a degree, but also for building a career as a professional.
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