On May 21, we applauded 165 undergraduates and almost as many graduate students for their achievement. While I enjoy watching the students shake the hand of the provost and the president as they receive their diplomas, there is a special place in my heart for the adults, the nontraditional students, who cross that stage.
The National Center for Education Statistics defines nontraditional students as financially independent students who work at least 35 hours per week, are married or are single parents with dependents. Almost 60 percent of current undergraduate students meet one or more of those characteristics.
The agency uses the term delayed enrollment, which means that a number of years have lapsed between high school and the beginning of college. Some nontraditional students have earned a degree from a community college or present transfer hours from a four-year college. But many adult students went to work right after high school; perhaps they earned a GED in lieu of earning a traditional high school diploma.
Why didn’t they go to college at 18 or 19? There are lots of reasons. The financial challenge may have been too great, or the access may not have existed then. Maybe no one in their family had earned a degree, modeling the importance of a college education.
The growth of nontraditional student communities in colleges across the nation is evidence that adults now realize the significance of a college degree. That credential may open the door to promotion. It may improve one’s income earning ability and the quality of life for the student and his or her family. Colleges are welcoming adult students with open arms and flexible schedules. Scholarships, grants and loan programs ease the financial burden a bit.
I know most of the Evening College students very well, so I thought of their personal stories when I heard the names called by the registrar. One student had been nervous, not at all confident the day he came to chat about applying to Evening College. He carried a full schedule every quarter, assumed a major leadership position in the student body and graduated with honors last month.
There was the young man who started several years ago and withdrew for a time. I didn’t really expect to see him again, but he surprised me. He returned and graduated, earning the highest honor in his major.
There was the student who earned her degree in the morning and then attended her daughter’s high school graduation that evening. That was cool.
There was the woman who told me that she has gotten excited about learning and doesn’t want to stop. Like many of our graduates, she plans to enroll in a master’s program this fall.
When most of the faculty and staff on The Hill are headed home, Evening College students are filling the parking spaces, ready to begin up to four hours of classes. Some have just a short commute, but others drive for more than an hour to attend classes on our campus. Many come straight from work, bringing a fast-food sack with them. Others attend class until 10 p.m., then begin their work as third-shift employees.
No matter what the work schedule, it’s not easy. For students with children at home, there are special issues. They need to develop schedules that will allow them to get home in time to help their children with homework or to cheer at their children’s basketball game. When parents work different schedules, there are other challenges. Thank goodness for grandparents, sisters and cousins who help with child care so students can attend evening and Saturday classes.
I’ve observed that there are certain behaviors characteristic of adult learners. First, they are highly motivated to attain a degree. Nobody is forcing them; they want this for themselves. Second, they are not satisfied with just learning the theories. They want to know why the theories matter; how they can apply the knowledge to improve their work and home lives. Third, they want to be an example for a child or a spouse or a friend. They’re saying, “I’m doing it. You can, too.”
So, hats off to the 2011 adult student graduates. You did it! We’re proud of you.
Linda McMullen is a member of LaGrange Writers Group.