The Non Traditional Student Paradox

The Non Traditional Student Paradox

By: Joel N Jenkins

As a first generation non-traditional student (someone who enters college age 24 or over), it often feels like very little has prepared me to understand the unique hurdles that appear on this race to a degree. Granted, we all come to college with varying levels of preparation, financial backgrounds and of course cultural realities. These all converge in the classroom. With our eyes directed towards the front we all attempt to not nod off or panic during the course of the semester. We balance taking notes with finessing the instructor for extra credit and working through the procrastination vs study struggle via social media. Meanwhile, for those of us like myself, this process comes with a unique set of challenges that change the texture of the terrain. The journey of a non-traditional student is uniquely challenging because we find ourselves torn between two worlds, lacking support and entering school with real world competencies that don’t always transfer well.

My life is torn between two worlds.

My Saturdays are this odd testament to how many parts of my life just don’t mesh together seamlessly. Mornings are spent in the writing workshop tutoring fellow students in academic writing. The conversation revolves around fixing syntax, delivering cogent messages and grammar. Meanwhile, during the downtime between tutoring consultations fellow tutors discuss our angst over our junior transfer applications, gossip about how many thesis statements we’ve looked over and how far behind we are in the weekly analysis for our literature survey classes. 

By the time the evening rolls around, the world around me shifts. Standing at the bar somewhere in gentrified SF (pick a neighborhood) we discuss how bad the vegetarian appetizer options are with a former officemate while downing bourbon at our favorite pre-game spot. One social worker friend had a mildly psychotic client and is still recovering the day after. I grimace as she catches me up on the HIPAA violations, office politics and updates on which grants are still active.  Another tags along to enjoy the town for the weekend as he visits for a conference from New York. Yet another friend is enjoying her first night out as a new mom but can’t help monitoring her phone constantly. At some point I notice we’re mirroring each other, because I’m sifting through email to verify that I’ve submitted an essay that’s due. Life marches forward and I’m caught in between.

I’ve made a U-turn in my life and can’t count on the same support as when I first became an adult.

The timeline of adult expectations is real. The significance of signing my first lease for an apartment, purchasing a car and passing the background checks for a job with a 401k are significant. As those happened in my life, it also came with the assurance that I was fulfilling expectations set for me by society at large. Along with this approval, I received support from the community of people that had known me growing up. My friends and family were there for me as I worked through the confusion making the transition from teenager to adult. There were training wheels. There was reassurance and at times there was even a well to do relative that helped out with rent. Someone helped me read over my rental agreements, commented on what I might wear to the company Christmas party to politick for a promotion and reminded me to use my credentials in my professional email signature when the promotion landed me in an office. Now though? Not so much.

Suddenly, I have the feeling that I’ve become the aunt who shows up to Thanksgiving with her third husband. Everyone around the table leans in awkwardly. A hush comes over the crowd. They shift their attention from the dry cornbread that our recently paroled cousin made -- because he needs to feel needed as he rejoins community. The kids table starts to quiet down. The young adults lose track of how much more ‘adult juice’ they need to stay the right amount of buzzed, polite and awake. Then it happens. Grandma shifts her weight slightly before announcing, “Oh well, another change of plans? Well… good for you.” Insert the shade of a thousand oak trees here. That feeling, the grimace on your face and the lack of reassurance never leaves. It plays out repeatedly, each and every time you inform people that you’re past drinking age and tackling undergrad for the first time. Granted your family, friends, and old co-workers care about you. 

However, the legends society tells you about the linear path life is meant to take is the very air we breath. It seeps into even these treasured and intimate interactions. They don’t get it. They’ve already seen you pick out a life for yourself. They’ve already been here before and mysteriously you’re making a U-turn. Needless to say that confusion turns heartfelt support into a lot of kind words but very few forms of tangible aid.

I’m highly competent in many things but almost none of them directly equate to being an excellent student.

There is not a spreadsheet that I’ve seen nor a snarky e-mail cc’d to three levels of bosses that has yet to scare me. I’ve been there. I relish the thought of  working my cruel rhetoric into a carefully worded paragraph that delivers the message “don’t fuck with me” in the most professional way possible. Turning these linguistic somersaults into an brief analysis of Virgina Woolf through a post-colonial lens? That took elbow grease and got stressful. Similarly, I have no difficulty organizing the financial books for a department that processed transactions in excess of $8000 daily while adhering to company, federal and state policies. This stressful exchange involved a salary, distinct expectations and a performance evaluation that could improve both periodically. Yet, homework during my first semester of statistics involved frantic calls to friends, real tears throughout the week and comfort food built into my study plan. In this new environment I pay for the privilege of working under high stress with a hazy outline of performance metrics split between a handful of different people and structures that may or may not equate to tangible rewards. Let’s be honest, grades can only say so much. There are many things that I’ve proven that I can do but few of them are related to the formal act of being a student in a classroom. 

This creates an internal struggle that’s something akin to waking up the morning after a long party. Am I still drunk or is the sun just that bright? In comparison to the greater student body, very few persons have switched tracks like this. So it creates the paradox that entices me to enter situations that are way over my head and glance past opportunities that are perfect fits. In short, it screws with your bearings in a way that can be really hard to perceive.

The reality for everyone that enters higher education is that you will exit transformed. More will be thrown your way in the form of challenges that can be planned for or expected. However, as non-traditional students our presence in higher education means that we’ve bucked against the system. We’ve challenged norms and in turn face challenges unique to taking that risk. We function between the worlds of what we knew in the world and what we are learning about navigating academia. We tend to lack the foundational support of family and friends who have trouble understanding why we shifted gears in the first place. Similarly, internally we find ourselves recalibrating what it means to be smart and competent in the workplace as we shift into student life. All of these form a complex, diverse perspective that make us more competitive candidates and great assets to our learning communities. The process of making that transformation a successful one, though, has a unique set of difficulties that relatively few of our fellow classmates and professors understand.

Joel N Jenkins is a student pursuing Linguistics. He still believes the power of the internet is found in vines of Black people clapping as they talk. He is also House President at the African American Theme House, a Hebrew school teacher, and a tutor.

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