View from the Front of the Classroom

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.

How It All Ends

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

One of the great things about having been in both the student’s chair and facing the students’ chairs as a professor is that you know the process of higher education … and you know “how it ends.”

Students who enroll into college fresh out of high school see their education as just a continuance, but with fewer authority figures.  They know, like with high school, they will enroll in courses according to their major, and at the end of four years, they will graduate with another diploma.

However, for Non-Traditional Students (NTS), there is a time gap between the commencement ceremony of high school and the beginning of their college career.  During that time gap, the future NTS has time to think about all of the possible consequences of enrollment, including the effect on her/his family life, possible career changes that might result and the overall commitment that will be required.  Sometimes, thinking of all of those possible outcomes can cause the future NTS to delay enrolling.  The uncertainty of “the ending” can be very scary.  But, my experience in the classroom has given me (as well as other NTS and professors) a crystal ball.  We know how it ends.

One of the delights of continuing your education as an NTS is that you have an intellectual connection to the course material and your academic career.  Often, you have chosen your courses and major based upon your life experience.  Therefore, there is a logical basis for your selections.  Or, you see the sands slipping through the hourglass and you have decided that now is the time to pursue your dream job – something that you cannot believe someone would pay you to do because you would be having so much fun.  Both of these scenarios are not within the experience of the recent high school graduate.  They do not have the same intellectual touchstones as the NTS.

It is because of this connection, that the ending, although uncertain to you, is clear to the former NTS, professors and often those in the admissions office.  You do not realize at the time, but you will experience a sense of growth that was not a consideration in your speculations about possible outcomes.  That growth, that broadening of understanding, will now create options for you that you had never envisioned.  In addition, there is both a sense of finality when your program is completed, and an awareness of a new beginning.  That awareness is they key to your future and is not something you can incorporate into your personal predictions.  Let’s face it, you can’t know what you don’t know.

So, let those of us who have sat in the student’s chair for many years and face the students’ chairs everyday, assuage your fears of the unknown.  It IS a happy ending.  You will become more than you ever thought you could be.  And, one day, somewhere down the road, you will encounter a potential NTS who is nervous about the uncertainties of going back to school, and you will smile.  Because you know how it ends.

View from the Front of the Classroom

Non-Traditional Students (NTS) often feel conspicuously “old” in the classroom (see 1.11.10 blog entry “I’m afraid of being the oldest student in the class”). Ever wonder what the professors and instructors are thinking?

At Pima Community College in Tucson Arizona, Spanish language instructor Dr. Dolores Durán-Cerda says ,“The students learn from each other. Non-traditional students want to be here; they are very inquisitive. They make the class alive.” For the entire quote regarding her teaching philosophy and her view of the students, click here.