Breaking the cycle, or, what if you’re the first?

Written February 15th, 2010
Categories: Non-Traditional Student
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By Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

I interviewed a Non-Traditional Student (NTS) who had just enrolled at Cleveland, Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College (“Tri C”) for his first semester. He was a 46 year-old truck driver at the time, and had been thinking about returning to school for 26 years. He kept telling people “I’m going to take a course at Tri C in the Fall,” or Spring, depending upon the time of year. He told me that after 26 years of telling people he was going to be taking a course at the college, it was probably about time he did. Although he had the usual NTS fear of being the oldest student, that fear quickly subsided as he became immersed in his class.

What he hadn’t counted on was the teasing he was going to take from his fellow truck drivers. After signing up to take his first course, he was nicknamed “Joe College.” In addition, his co-workers grilled him on why he was returning to school, i.e. “What do you need college for?”

This is not unusual, no matter what level of school you are entering. Sometimes potential NTS are worried about alienating their families, especially if they are the first to attend college. And sometimes friends and family can get downright mean. From out of the blue, an NTS might hear comments like “You think you’re better than everyone else,” or “You think your opinion is more important than other people’s.”

I heard all of those comments from the time I enrolled in Community College all the way through to earning my Ph.D. (Actually, I still hear the comments.) I am, what is often called, a “first generation scholar.” In other words, I am the first of my five brothers and sisters to attend graduate school, and the first of my enormous extended family to go on to get a Doctorate. My nieces and nephews, many of whom have earned their Baccalaureate’s and/or Master’s Degree, have warmly accepted my advanced schooling. (One niece even calls me “Aunt Doc.”) The same cannot be said for those relatives closer to my age.

So what do you do? First, you must understand that the problem does not lie with you, but with the friends, family and co-workers who suddenly feel threatened by your new choices. You may be doing what many of these people wanted to do themselves, so they are envious and lash out at you to make themselves feel better or more secure. Another scenario is that others may have a skewed perception of the role of education. If they have never gone beyond high school themselves, they will not have the same understanding of the purpose of college as you do. Even you may not realize this yet, but college merely teaches you critical thinking and what questions to ask. It really is not about having the answers. As you expand your range of knowledge, you begin to understand differing perspectives. It is by taking on those differing perspectives that you learn to ask questions. You learn doubt, rather than certainty. Your attitudes, beliefs and values become stretched and more flexible as you embrace other points-of-view. You begin to see the world through a wide-angle lens, rather than peering through a tunnel. That is the gift of education.

I have heard from so many NTS who say that no one can ever take the education away from him or her. Keep that in mind as you begin your college career. Also keep in mind that most of your friends, family and co-workers will wish you well. Enjoy those moments of praise. They will sustain you through those horrendous chemistry exams!

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