In the last two weeks, many friends posted photos of their little ones heading off to their first day of school. It certainly was no different in our household. Piano Man marched off to a new school, and Prof back at teaching a new semester of classes.
Little Linus felt a little left out. He too felt the need to put on his little backpack and hold his library book to follow along in big brother’s footsteps.
And me? Well, I thought about taking a new college course, Computer Science (CS) 100. I had been discussing with the professor about my prospects of auditing the course since May (while I was still in Cyprus). I waited and waited in hopes that one of the daycare centers in the area would have an opening and be the right fit for Linus to participate in its program, but nothing worked out.
About a week before classes were about to begin, I contacted the professor letting him know of my situation, thanking him for the opportunity to take the course, but that I would have to enroll next semester. Personally, I waited until the last minute to contact the professor because I was in the process of mourning. I looked forward to taking this new class, a new area that I had never explored before in developing some website building skills. Although this professor was nothing like The Godfather, he presented an offer I couldn’t refuse – to take the course in real-time from my home. (Woohoo!) This now meant that I could be home with Linus while sitting in my kitchen taking the course along with other traditional college students.
Once the ball was rolling with admissions, I was enrolled through the registrar’s office, and IT set up my online accounts. There was no turning back. A wave of nervousness came over me. Would I be able to do this? Can I follow along with these younger 20-somethings?
But according to a report from the Wall Street Journal that reviewed data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, these days non-traditional students make up more of the undergraduate student population. (For the 2011-2012 academic year, 29% of students at a four-year, public or private, undergraduate college were considered as traditional students.) So, I should feel pretty good about being a part of the majority, right?
Well, I’ve been both a traditional student (defined as a single, young 20-something, high school graduate, and financially dependent on my parents) and non-traditional student (defined as family-oriented, working or in my case as a stay-at-home parent, way past my 20s). There are advantages and disadvantages to both. However, for the sake of time, I am focusing on a few of the advantages and disadvantages of being a non-traditional college student.
(Diagram: Advantages and Disadvantages of a Traditional and Non-Traditional College Student.)
Now, there’s always an exception to the rule. Not all traditional college students would agree that these advantages/disadvantages apply to them, and vice versa for non-traditional college students. I’m just giving you some personal anecdotes about how I perceive these benefits and drawbacks.
Advantages of Being a Non-Traditional Student
1. Our life experiences help enrich the classroom experience.
As I have said before, I’ve taken other courses as a non-traditional student, such as Architecture 101/201 (The course number is different at my college.) In fact, I’ve taken a very similar course when I was a traditional college student in the summer of 1997 at University of Texas at Austin (UT). While I don’t have a photo of my art renderings from UT, let me just help you visualize how simplistic my work was. Think of a Neanderthal smashing an hexagonal block against a rectangular block, and you have my design from college.
Now, here is a photo of my work from a similar course in 2009:
I know, it’s not equivalent to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry, but it’s much better than anything I could have ever worked on 15+ years ago. I truly believe that living and traveling abroad, seeing major structural and majestic pieces, such as Il Duomo in Florence, Piazza di Spagna (aka “The Spanish Steps”) in Rome, and Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris, in real life helped me to be a better architectural student the second time around. It’s definitely not the same thing as visualizing it in a textbook and analyzing it from your laptop. The enormity and majestic feel of some of the world’s beautifully man-made buildings and structures is something you have to see, touch, and experience for yourself.
(Photos Above: Prof took me to see the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in 2005. We listened to a Washington, D.C.-based church choir sing Christmas songs on the famous Spanish Steps, Christmas Eve 2006. We saw the amazing Duomo in the winter of 2006.)
2. We have the ability to prioritize and focus.
To be a stay-at-home parent to two very active boys, well, let’s just say they keep me busy. Being a mom, wife, volunteer, friend, daughter, sister, mentor, blogger, and now a student are all elements of who I am. I know what things are important and what things can be put aside, most of the time. I’ve had years to figure out my schedules and life workloads that traditional college students are refining.
I know this all too well because during my college years I didn’t know how to juggle my personal, academic, extra-curricular, and internship activities. It was tough to know when to say no to certain things and to prioritize others above something else. I thought I could do it all, and there were definite points of meltdown at the library when I was pulling an all-nighter just as my brain had shut down for the night.
3. We know the end-goal, and we see the big picture.
I know why I am taking CS 100. I want my blog to grow and get better. I am taking additional courses to better myself and my future endeavors. For other non-traditional students, they are getting a college degree to enhance their career or to transition into a new one. We know how precious this course or degree is. This is our time to make it count.
But when I was 20-something, I took several courses that really were more like GPA boosters (such as an easy A elective course) or courses that I thought I would major in, such as organic chemistry, but never did. At the end of my senior year, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life post-college.
Disadvantages of Being a Non-Traditional Student
However, as excited about the prospects of a new adventure in learning some basic skills in computer programming, I know I face some tough challenges ahead.
1. My memory is fading over time.
You’ve heard of “mommy brain.” There are studies out there that say our brains are growing or transitioning to fit the new role of motherhood. And yes, my brain may have the entire theme song to “Thomas and Friends” memorized to help me to be the best mom I can be. But please, dear brain, I would love to be able to remember how to write my name in Mandarin after taking Chinese language classes for four painful and down right embarrassing years.
Let me back up a bit. I took four years of Chinese (Mandarin). I even retook third-year Chinese in hopes that I would be able to complete fourth-year Chinese. However, I should have known when to stop the bleeding. I was hemorrhaging from mommy brain, or rather my inability to memorize 1000’s of Chinese characters. In the middle of my first semester of Chinese, Piano Man was born. While learning all the new things that a new parent tackles, I was studying for my take-home Mid-term exam. Let’s just say that I had been catching up with my traditional college classmates ever since.
It had gotten so excruciating painful in the last two years of studying Chinese. At the end of the spring semester of my second retake of third year Chinese, I asked the professor of the Asian languages program if I should continue on with Chinese. He frankly said I should quit. He knew how much I had been struggling. If there was even a remote chance that I could improve, he would have encouraged me to continue with my studies. But he confirmed what I already knew. He was like a general surgeon who had to inform me that the surgery didn’t go well and the patient, my desire to study Chinese, was on life support. My professor looked to me to make the call, and so I pulled the plug on studying Chinese.
2. Juggling family, work, and life schedule mean less time for you as a student.
As I was in the process of writing this post, Prof reminded me of the time when I used to take Piano Man with me to first year Chinese language class. Oh, those were the days. Having a newborn, figuring out how to work his feeding and sleeping schedule around class time, so that I could be a mom and a student. Some class days were better than others. The best days were when he would sleep right through class, and no one even noticed the large baby gear monstrosity in the back of the classroom. The worst days were when my little one would cry ceaselessly, even as I tried to console him in the stairwell down the hall or bathroom.
Additionally, I also took on a new role as “soccer mom.” Piano Man is playing in a very relaxed soccer program with our local city’s program. Never in a million years did I ever think I would become a soccer mom, but here I am. Now, we’re planning dinners at the park, watching our elder son practice and make new friends. We have a ton of other responsibilities that I won’t bore you with, but when you have kids, your life is just not about you and your spouse anymore. It’s about juggling soccer practices, games, piano lessons, and drop offs/pick ups to/from school. And that doesn’t include the work and home responsibilities we have.
When it comes to studying, I have to find time during naps or after the kids go down to bed. My time is thus very limited, especially when my brain wants to start to shut down after 8 pm. And assuming that they aren’t sick in the middle of the night, my workday ends when they go to bed. I may not have a 9-5 work schedule or a 12-17 hour course load. But as parents/loved ones know, we have a 24-7 workload that requires us to be on-call and clocked-in when things get tough or our kids need a hug/kiss on a boo-boo.
3. We have less energy and lost that youthful edge.
If mommy brain wasn’t tough enough to overcome on a daily basis, we non-traditional students are working long hours at the office and/or raising our kids. It’s like when your kid wants you to read the same “Ninjago” or “Legends of Chima” book over and over again, or asks to play outside with you, while you daydream of sipping a Mai Tai and sun bath on the sandy beaches of Maui.
And with the wisdom that we somehow attain as we get older (which I know I have a lot more to learn in my 40s, 50s, and 60s+), I recognize that I am becoming more set in my ways. For example, I don’t like to text, which I avoided for the last ten years before moving to Cyprus. (People in Cyprus text because they don’t have voicemail on their phones.) Those of the younger generation are more apt to the versatility of various social media outlets. They like to and are able to multitask in ways that I can only dream of sometimes.
Advantages and Disadvantages of the Traditional College Student
I won’t go into detail about the advantages or disadvantages of being a traditional student as I am no longer in that phase of my life. And if you’re a traditional college student, you’re probably not reading this. You’ve got more pressing matters to deal with than reading about how non-traditional students are taking over your campus. Besides, you’re a traditional college student. Relish in this phase of your life, as college is your time to really explore different courses and learn about yourself and others in the process.
I’m not advocating for one path over the other when it comes to getting a college education. In fact, I look back at my traditional college experience and really enjoyed that chapter of my life.
But let’s be clear about something. Traditional students, we of the older generation/population aren’t antiquated dinosaurs that one might think. Contrary to popular belief, we do know something about life. Maybe not about the latest Vimeo or YouTube viral video, but we can offer life experiences that younger generations can only dream of.
Non-traditional students, we too have something to glean from the younger 20-somethings. They may be heavily make-up and skimpy clothes wearing, hormonal folks figuring out life, but they know how to skip a few steps to process things faster on technological gadgets. They offer new perspectives that you may not have thought of because they too have a unique mind with a unique set of personal experiences.
In conclusion, we need each other. It’s the synergy in and outside of the classroom that makes going to college (now or 20 years from now) cool and an experience worth living for. So stay tuned, I’ll probably share more of my journey as a non-traditional student on this blog in future posts. After all, this is the stage of life I am currently in.
But what do you think? Are there some additional benefits and drawbacks that I am missing? Please feel to share in the comments below.