Non-Traditional Student

Changing Careers at Any Age …

(reprinted from Schenectady County Community College AlumNews, Spring 2010)

After five decades in preclinical lab research, managing clinical trials, screening drugs, and collecting and processing data, JoanDembinski ’09 traded her business suit for a chef ’s hat and began attending SCCC as a full-time student in the Culinary Arts program. She graduated in May 2009 with an Assistant Chef Certificate in Culinary Arts. Having not had enough, she is back and working on her Associate in Occupational Science degree Culinary Arts, with a Baking concentration.

Joan has been interested in cooking since she was a child at the elbow of her mother in the kitchen. Joan says she is thrilled to have the transition from a business “where people needed medicine” to one where “people need to have good nutrition and meals.” The human relations aspects of both fields excite Joan, as do the intricacies of safety and sanitation.

Retirement is not a word in her vocabulary. Going back to school at age 71 is a challenge for anyone. “The first week I felt as if a train hit me,” she said. But she added that the transition has also been inspiring. “To come to SCCC as an older person, I found and enjoyed a welcoming atmosphere. Diversity is not only cultivated at SCCC, it flourishes. My experience after 50 years away from academia keeps me focused and thankful for the time spent at a wonderful school.”

Joan shares her testimonial about her love for the Culinary Arts program. “Without the excellent training and support from the superb instructors at SCCC, I would not be continuing on this pathway. They have opened up avenues of research, and continu- ing excitement in discovering ways to prepare and present nutri- tional meals. The dedication and care in which subject matter is presented is significant. Remembering and implementing skills brings a quiet smile as I remember the words and helpful hands from a caring chef….my thanks abound!”

Now in her sixth semester, Joan has earned a 3.99 GPA. She works as a member-worker at Honest Weight, a food co-op in Albany, and at Yono’s Restaurant. Rather than taking advantage of scholarship money available to senior citizens, Joan pays her tuition and donates to the College’s scholarship fund.

“I’m enjoying my journey. Whatever the destination, it is irrelevant. Follow your dreams. Do what you love to do.” And, as her mother once told her, “never stop learning.”

Going It Alone

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

It is pretty tough to get through hard times all by yourself – be they financial, emotional, spiritual or physical.   If your goals are not understood by others (or even worse, pose a threat), you can begin to sense a distance beginning to form between you and some of your friends, or even members of your family.  So you start rethinking those goals.  The demons of doubt visit you and your self-confidence can begin to erode away.  When do you stay true to your dreams, and when do you back away?

It is a dilemma indeed, and one that can be thrust upon you and catch you by surprise.  You assume that everyone will be rooting for you.  Unfortunately, it does not always work out that way.  If you have decided to train for a marathon, friends and family may be split about supporting you.  Some may be cheering you on with every milestone.  Others may question your decision from the time you buy your first pair of running shoes.  Or, maybe you are from a family that tends toward obesity, and you make the decision to maintain a normal weight.  Some family members may marvel at your success and ask your advice.  Others may begin to single out the traits of yours which they find disagreeable, and belittle you for those traits (when they are really threatened by your weight management).

What if you decided to return to college?  This decision could impact your circle of friends and family even more than running a marathon, maintaining weight or quitting smoking.  A goal of returning to school requires a different type of commitment.  It requires you to go outside your comfort zone.  In the process, you begin to change as you achieve goals along the way (e.g. completed courses) and absorb new knowledge and hone your critical thinking skills.  Your friends and family may think you “talk differently.”  I know of one person who, upon completing his educational goals was chided by a family member for “trying to be an intellectual.”

So what do you do?  First, “follow your gut.”  If you want to pursue a lifelong dream, you should do it.  Second, it is your life.  Only you live with you 24 hours a day.  Only you are inside your head wondering about the future and, perhaps, wishing you had made different decisions in the past.  Think of it this way, you can never regret achieving a goal, but you may regret not trying.  And, what if some friends and family members do distance themselves?  Remember, their problem with your goals is not your problem.  Often non-supportive friends and family are being non-supportive for other underlying reasons.

Finally, you should seek out those people who do encourage you.  It is easy to focus on those who do not understand your dreams, especially if they are your siblings, your best friend, or even your parents.  Align yourself with positive people.  Hopefully, in time, the ones who have stayed away will see how happy and accomplished you are, and will start coming back into your life.

Notes from a Gen Xer

by Norma Jones, University of North Texas

During recessions, more non-traditional students (NTS) are returning to earn degrees and learn skills to improve personal economic situations.  As a result, community colleges and universities are competing with newer, online, and private institutions to attract non-traditional learners.  In addition, community colleges and universities have also become increasingly friendly to non-traditional students with online content and flexible scheduling.  I have observed a shift to non-traditional formats such as online classes as well as classes scheduled later in the day to allow for working adults to participate.

The US Department of Education (2002) have assigned the following characteristics to NTS:  delayed enrollment (did not continue onto post secondary in the same year as completing high school), part time, full time employee (35+ hours a week), financially independent (as determined by financial aid services), have dependants, single parents, and have GED instead of a high school diploma.  As of 2000, 73% of all post secondary students have one or more of the above characteristics thus classifying them as NTS.  I find it interesting that the US Department of Education does not include age as a NTS characteristic because in classrooms, non-traditional learners are usually identified because they are older.

The Federal Student aid services (2005) classify NTS as over 25 and as of 2005, over 27% of undergraduate students considered to be non-traditional.  Furthermore, they estimate that between 2006 to 2017, over 25 enrollment will increase by 19%.  Factoring in marketing generations, and as of today, the noted ages corresponds to Generation X who were born between 1966 and 1980.  I identify as a Gen X’er in addition to my other non-traditional characteristics.  In family life, Generation X were the first generation to be sent to day care centers.  Our parents experienced tripled divorce rates and we were also the original latch key kids.  I spent a lot of time at other people’s homes and am amazed at how the younger generation seemingly had at least one parent to come home to.  As a result of instability in homes, and forced independence, Generation X became the first yuppies where we made more money than previous generations.  We worked hard and played even harder.  Lifestyle brands such as The Sharper Image thrived during this time.  As a result, in classrooms and in teaching, my personal feelings regarding early hours and unpopular projects don’t matter.  We’re here to do a job and do it well.  We also witnessed Black Monday of 1987 and our extreme experience lifestyle changes resulting from the current recession.  As a Generation X’er, I sought stability because of unstable home and work lives.  Also, in most cases, the decision to return to or continue education is a marketing one because Gen X’ers are trying to find a means to earn money.  Thus, I suggest that community colleges and universities consider Generation X needs when developing recruiting and educational plans.

As a Generation X NTS, I am in my second year of my masters.  I am also a teaching assistant with my own classes.  So, I have experienced NTS education both as a teacher and as a student. Currently, I am in a Communication + Aging class where I am a couple of years older than my professor.  I am old.  I am older than half my professors.  One of them is actually from the same high school and graduated one year after me.  Being an older TA has advantages.  I don’t have to hide my age from freshmen who are four-five years younger than me and address myself with a title.  As a GenX’er I want stability so, last minute shifting content, schedules, and deadlines via email and text annoy me.  I’m learning to adjust to the faster pace of the wired babies.  Unlike my Millennial peers, I do not want constant handholding or affirmation.  I am amused by younger concerns, such as love and angst, that I haven’t dealt with in the better part of two decades.  But, these are my peers and this is my existing situation.  So, as an overachieving Gen X/Yuppie, I learn to adjust.

Scholarship Spotlight

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (JKCF)

This foundation, created in 2000 by the philanthropist Jack Kent Cooke awards money to “promising students.”  Among the many classifications of students who receive an award are Non-Traditional Students (NTS).  While many of the blogs at “You Can Do College” have focused on persons considering beginning college, the JKCF encourages students with 2-year degrees to return to college for their 4-year degree.  Some of the awards for NTS have been as high as $30,000!

From the site,, here is an excerpt:

“The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is a private, independent foundation established by Jack Kent Cooke to help exceptionally promising students reach their full potential through education. Launched in 2000, the Foundation focuses in particular on students with financial need. The Foundation’s scholarship and direct service programs support the education of approximately 650 remarkable students each year, while our grantmaking allows thousands more to engage in challenging educational experiences.”

If money is what stands between you and your returning to school, there are a lot of scholarships out there for the NTS.  It will be well worth your time to browse the Internet in search of these awards.  Just enter the search terms “Non-Traditional Student” and “scholarship” and you will be amazed at the opportunities that await you!  Good luck!

Connecting the Dots

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

Last week I was invited to hear the keynote speaker at a student conference being held at our college on behalf of our students.  The conference was geared towards preparing our students for leadership roles in their careers.  The keynote speaker was a former student who had taken my class “Speech & Public Speaking.”  Unfortunately, she was “snowed-in” in New York City and had to give her speech via Skype audio.  Her PowerPoint presentation was given simultaneously.

I remember her … even though it had been five years and a thousand students ago.  “Nickie” was the dream student.  She was an Art Education teacher out West and decided to make a career change by enrolling in a program at our school.  She was in her mid-twenties when she came to be a student in my class.  Nickie was an eager student whose mind was open and ready to take in the lessons that were offered to her.  She was unusual in that she did not treat “Speech class” like a class with assignments.  Nickie approached the class with the attitude of “How can I use this to help me with my career?”  That difference was all the difference.

During the 10 weeks she was in my class, she had an interview in New York City for an internship.  We had just covered argument-based persuasion, so she went to NYC with this new-found knowledge and felt prepared to handle the presentation and interview.  She did get the position, and returned to our classroom fired up about using the tools acquired in the classroom in the “real world.”

She had “connected the dots.”  We, as professors, offer “dots” to our students.  It is up to the students to connect them, to have them make sense, to use them.  Nickie was a Non-Traditional Student (NTS) in that she had already earned her Bachelor’s Degree and was pursuing a rewarding career.  She opted to change direction when she realized she needed and wanted more.  Even though she did not fit the numeric definition of a NTS (out of high school at least 10 years), she had a fully mature attitude toward learning and was highly motivated to effect change in her life.

She graduated in 2007 and has pursued a successful career as an independent designer, obtaining numerous contracts with prestigious firms.  She has also participated in many college-related events even though she lives in a different region of the country.  When she was asked to give the keynote address she requested that her former professors be e-mailed and invited to attend the opening program of the conference.  Before her presentation began, I asked the coordinator of the conference to let Nickie know that I was there.  Consequently, when she was wrapping up her speech, she gave an enthusiastic “shout-out” to me and thanked me for all she had learned in my class.

Yes, I did provide the dots she needed to help with the change in her career.  However, it was up to her to connect them – and so she did!

Getting $$

Below is the first page from the web site.  Note that “40% of American college students … are 25 years of age or older.”  The Federal government has financial opportunities to help you return to school, whether you are interested in getting your GED or your Ph.D.

The address for the web site is:


Non-traditional Student

Today, education is for everyone. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 90 million individuals participate in some form of adult education each year, including training and basic education offered outside traditional higher education. To serve this immense market, most colleges have structured programs and services specifically for adult learners. Forty percent of American college students, or almost 6 million people, are 25 years of age or older.

Assess Yourself

The first step to finding the right program and type of school for you is to evaluate your interests. A self-assessment will help you examine your interests and goals, and offers ideas on fields of study and careers that might be right for you.

For information on careers, latest career fields in demand, how to get the training you need for the job you want, and where to look for a job, visit CareerOneStop.

General Education Development (GED) Certificate

If you’d like to go to college but you don’t have a high school diploma, find out about taking the GED. More than 800,000 adults each year take the GED. For more information on the GED visit the official GED website.

Take the Tests

Once you have assessed your interests and determined what type of program you want to enroll in, you may be required to take one or more standardized tests. Here you will find more information about common standardized tests and what you need to do to prepare for them.

Types of Schools

Once you have an idea of what your interests are, it’s time to figure out what kinds of schools offer programs that match those interests. Whether you are looking at 2-year, 4-year, or trade schools, make sure that the school is accredited. If you anticipate receiving federal student aid while in school, you’ll want to make sure that the school is Title IV participating. Otherwise, you may not be eligible for federal student aid.

Things to Consider

There are hundreds of points that should be taken into consideration while you are making decisions about what to do when returning to school. Here are a few points to take into account before you commit to a school.

Understanding College Costs

Most people believe that college is much more expensive than it really is. Although some colleges are expensive, the costs of many colleges are within financial reach.

Funding Your Education

The Federal Student Aid Programs are the largest source of student aid in America. These programs provide over $80 billion a year in grants, loans and work-study assistance. If you are interested in financial aid, you’ve come to the right place.

Attending School

If you are enrolled as a full- or part-time student and need to find out more about your educational loans, you’ll find all the information you need right here.

Entering Repayment

After you graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment, you generally have six months before you begin repayment of your student loan. You will receive information about repayment and will be notified by your Loan Provider of the date Loan Repayment begins.

Observations from the Front of the Classroom

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

I just returned from an academic conference in San Francisco.  On the last day of the conference, I presented a paper that addressed the fears of the Non-Traditional Student (NTS). Over the last year, many of these fears have been addressed in this blog. The paper was part of a panel entitled “Outreaching to the Non-Traditional Student.”  The other papers that were presented made some observations about the NTS once s/he was in the classroom.

One observation that was echoed throughout the panel was “organization.”  While the traditional students seemed just to stuff notes and such away in a notebook, the NTS had an organized system into which papers, notes and handouts were systematically stored away.

Another observation was the incorporation of life’s experiences into writing assignments and term papers.  Although the NTS might balk at writing assignments due to lack of practice (indeed, this is one of the fears that may delay the return of the NTS to college), when the task is finally undertaken, there are amazing results (at least from the point-of-view of the professors!).  There’s an old adage about writing that urges new writers to “write what you know.”  When the NTS connects her/his knowledge to a writing assignment, texts and topics that are compelling and thoughtful are produced.  The NTS has a wellspring of knowledge into which s/he can tap that perhaps, rather than being afraid of the prospect of writing papers, NTS can seize the opportunity to write about their lives and those facets of their lives that make them what they are today.

A graduate student from Texas did just that as she presented her paper.  She is a “Generation Xer,” meaning that she was born in the 1970s.  She offered up the primary concerns of the Gen Xer and suggested that the motivations to return to school were often financial and marketing-related.  She said that she is sometimes older than the professor.  When I restated that fear during my presentation, I looked over to her, and she said, “It’s so annoying.”

Another panel member listed the needs of the NTS upon entrance to the classroom.  High among these needs was to “be listened to.”  There should be, she argued, a place that gives the NTS a solid resource that is tailored to their unique needs.

Hopefully, this will be encouraging to you – a future or newly enrolled Non-Traditional Student.  Your efforts are being noticed and as are your skills, points-of-view, and those unique needs.

Election Day

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

Usually Election Day is the first Tuesday of November.  Well, at least the national, political elections are on that day.

But, when is YOUR Election Day?  Election means a choice, or, to choose.  Sure, you elect your political representatives, but you also elect options in your life.  By recognizing that you can “elect,” or make choices, you empower yourself to have control over your life.  You make all sorts of elections and selections every day.  A (s)election can change your life, or, it can keep your life humming along at its current pace.  Opportunities also come along every day and you must (s)elect which ones you have time for, can afford, or just simply want.

Sometimes, your personal Election Day is Thanksgiving – when you decide to give thanks for the opportunity you are about to undertake.  Sometimes, you may choose Christmas or Chanukah or Solstice, as a time to reflect upon the year and celebrate the holidays with loved ones.  Often you may make New Year’s Day your Election Day as you list out all of our New Year’s resolutions.  You say:  “THIS will be the year I ________________(fill in the blank)!!

If returning to college is one of those opportunities that frequent your thoughts, then perhaps it is time to elect to visit that college web site that seems to keep summoning you.  Allow yourself a few minutes to envision the courses you would take.  Click on the “virtual tour” and take a cyber-trip around the campus.  Visit the faculty web pages of those professors who teach the courses that interest you.  See if there is a Non-Traditional Student (NTS) site, or testimonials from NTS.  Give yourself a few minutes to immerse into that world that you have thought about so often.

Who knows?  YOUR Election Day might really be the first Tuesday in November!

Hitting the Brakes

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

I have a Non-Traditional Student (NTS) in one of my classes this term.  I had the feeling from the onset of the class that her taking this course might be a little burdensome.  She is married to a member of our armed forces who has been deployed to the Middle East.  She missed classes due to migraines, missed important assignments and fell behind the rest of the class. It looks like she is going to have to withdraw from the course to avoid a failing grade. This is both atypical and typical of the NTS.

It is atypical because NTS are often meticulous about their work and usually have perfect attendance.  They are the ones who stay after class to discuss various issues with the professor.  Sometimes they just want to chat with someone their own age!  The NTS rarely is late with work and the work is usually in the “A” and “B” range.  The above student had not fallen into those patterns this school term.  I knew that something was out of kilter.

It is, also, typical because her situation represents how NTS must incorporate advancing their education into their current life that is filled with responsibilities.  The obligation to fulfill assignments for a college course seems trivial next to the life-threatening circumstances of a loved one.  Worry, and the illness that may result from it, can be overwhelming.  When this happens, it is time to hit the brakes.  Stop your formal education, if necessary, and tend to those things in your personal life that require your attention.

The opportunity to attend college will always be there.  No matter where you are, no matter how old you are, there’s going to be a place for you in the classroom.  There are times in our lives when we must put our dreams on hold.  But doing so does not mean that you have abandoned your goals.  When the obligations and pressures of your life outside of school demand your full attention, you need to respond to those obligations.  If you do not, you will be unable to concentrate on your studies and disaster may result.  In turn, a few poor performances in school may be enough to convince yourself that you “can’t do it.”

When crises happen, allow yourself the time to get through them.  A crisis can last a few days, or, sadly, a few years.  No matter how much time is required to alleviate the problems at hand, do not desert your dream. Often it will be the dream that will sustain you during those tough times.

“I hate Math.”

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

+ × ÷ ≤ ≥ = √

For some people, the line above might look like a swear word, for others it IS definitely profanity!  Math …  It is sometimes the curse of the Non-Traditional Student (NTS), unless, of course, you have decided to return to school to pursue a math-related major.  But, for many, Math can be an obstacle too tall, too intimidating to overcome.  And, the more time that passes as you debate the decision of whether or not to return to school, the more that courses, like Math, loom large in influencing that decision.

Perhaps you wrestled with all forms of math in high school.  You simply did not get it.  Now, years later, you have not found those high school algebra courses to have been all that helpful, so, you still do not understand why math is required.  The problem here (no pun intended) is that you may be remembering the emotional struggle with math, rather than the math itself.  It is possible, that because you took the high school math course as a requirement, you trudged through, did the homework, and were just glad when it was over.  With a mindset of impatience and lack of confidence, it would be difficult to understand how math has been incorporated into your life.

By the time you are old enough to be a NTS, things have dramatically changed.  You have been employed for many years and perhaps you have a family.  Those adult responsibilities will help to put those “dreaded” courses, like Math or English Composition, in a whole new light.  You will find that Algebra, with its word problems and equations, actually has real-life applications.  For instance, learning how to do word problems can be very helpful when traveling or estimating invoices.  Equations promote logical thinking and can help you work through real life problems that need to be broken down step-by-step.

I was one of those who put off school because of Math.  It terrified me.  However, upon returning to school as a NTS, I discovered how many different ways I could use Algebra.  (My favorite uses were to estimate a tax return or my net pay after a raise!)  And, of course, this applied to those other courses too, that had little to do with my major, but were required – such as, English Composition, Science and more Math courses.  Any of these courses may be what is keeping you from returning to college.  But, those courses do not mean the same thing now as they did in high school.  As an adult in those classes, you will be able to make the connection between what is being taught in the classroom and how you will be able to use it when you leave the classroom.

The different perspective that comes with being an adult may change the “I hate math” from high school to “I get it, now.”  It will all add up.