What a Difference a Decade Makes

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

A Non-Traditional Student (NTS) is generally defined as a student who has been out of high school for at least 10 years – and what a difference that decade makes! Through my academic life as a professor, and my daily use of social media where I can observe postings of family members, I have seen the advantage of maturity when it comes to learning.  Following is a comparison of postings by two family members who are continuing their education.

The younger family member, who is attending a community college, is focused on her own emotions.  These emotions are wrapped up in dramatic highs and lows, and frequently reflect feelings of betrayal.  Her photographs are of all of her “best friends” with all of the expected captions, e.g. “My best friend in the whole world!”  The only references to school are generally negative – specifically having to study and write papers.  She routinely quotes famous persons without giving them their due credit.  All of these postings are typical of high school and late teens.

The older family member, a NTS, is preparing for admission during the upcoming academic year.  She is thrilled to attend school.  She recently toured the college’s campus and was joyous at the prospect of immersing herself into her studies.  A residual fear from high school of taking math classes initially contributed to her delay in continuing with higher education.  But, now she is ready.  Although in high school she did not have the wisdom to understand how algebra could be applied to everyday life, she began to comprehend its usefulness.  What was once a chore was now a tool.  Among her comments regarding required courses is “I can’t wait to learn this.”

This dramatic difference between the traditional and non-traditional student is one reason why the NTS consistently performs well in an academic setting.  The NTS “gets it,” i.e. why they are there.  Often, and certainly not always, the traditional student sees college academics as a continuation of high school.  However, they are becoming young adults and, especially if they are away from home, there can be a deep-seated emotional clash.  I have counseled students who have admitted that the weight of adult responsibilities have become so burdensome that their grades are suffering.  Frequently, they wisely seek the campus counseling that is there to address these specific issues.

The NTS, however, has transitioned into managing adult responsibilities. These students may be married and have children, or simply have been working for several years.  They bring with them into the classroom a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to doing well.  While a support system is both desirable and helpful, sometimes there is none, and the NTS is on his or her own.   Professors notice this commitment, too.  Not only do my colleagues and I see it in the classroom, but also I can remember my interaction with professors as I was attending college as a NTS.  One English professor told me that the NTS was her favorite student because of these students’ maturity.  There are no discipline problems – at least in the classroom.

Sometimes the NTS can be surprised by their own acquisition of wisdom over the years.  While they may harbor fears that echo from their high school days, they can also have those fears assuaged by the simple logic of a course curriculum.  They see the big picture and they are envisioning a successful use of their education.

Indeed, what a difference a decade makes!

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