In many ways, I have always been a nontraditional student. Bored with the classes I took at my religious, barely accredited private school, I learned early on how to teach myself what I wanted to learn. Now, as an undergraduate in my 30s finishing my first bachelor’s degree at California State University at Long Beach, I’m still using those skills to navigate the odd experience of being one of the oldest students in the classroom.
My face always burns when age comes up in class or on campus. “You’re all probably too young to remember this,” a professor says about something that happened in the ’90s or early aughts that I remember perfectly well. ‘N Sync and Britney Spears appear in quiz questions in my feminism and pop culture class, and no one else remembers watching “Full House” or lived through 9/11 as a teen. And that’s to say nothing of the ways, subtle and not so subtle, a four-year university is geared toward full-time, 18-year-old students, and not to people like me, who took a less direct path to campus. But I’m also learning that my past, and my age, are an asset in higher education, not a hindrance.
In high school, I read voraciously (but never the book assigned), asked questions that annoyed my teachers and took assignments as suggestions. I was inattentive, but not lazy — I spent hours in my room writing radio scripts and short essays, and teaching myself HTML so I could self-publish online. I graduated, but without a qualifying grade point average, I couldn’t go straight to a four-year-school, and I don’t think I wanted to.
For two years, I lived in the Sequoia National Forest, where I attended a monastic Christian discipleship program, and then I tried community college. A perfect storm of spiritual confusion, undiagnosed anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder added to my struggle to keep myself in school while I figured out what I wanted to do. I found myself ditching class regularly. But I felt so much pressure to be in school, even though I wasn’t ready. I kept enrolling, but ended up wasting a lot of time taking and withdrawing from classes I didn’t need or care about.
Around age 24, I started coordinating art exhibitions with artists I met at the myriad entry-level museum jobs I took throughout my 20s. I co-directed a project space, where I learned the ropes of managing artists and developed a deep affinity for art history. I worked part time for eight more semesters until I got my grades in order and my classes lined up to transfer.
After eight years in and out of community college and nine part-time jobs, I now haunt the breezeways of CSULB, a four-year university. The mean age of total enrolled undergrads here is 22.5, making me eight years older than the average student and closer in age to some of my professors than my classmates.
Technically, being a nontraditional student isn’t all that nontraditional. The National Center for Education Statistics has delineated seven characteristics of nontraditional students, including delayed enrollment, full-time employment and supporting a dependent; NCES posits that 75 percent of all students have at least one of these characteristics. In 2011, 40 percent of American college students were considered nontraditional. Yet most four-year universities remain geared toward “traditional” students — the image of young, boozy, fresh-out-of-high-school kids unpacking Ikea furniture from their parents’ cars is still the one that dominates. According to Robert Hansen, chief executive of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, faculty tend to focus more on full-time, first-time students, despite statistical data suggesting that more students are actually nontraditional.
This has real implications. Many part-time students are blocked from applying for scholarships or Pell Grants; students with children are without on-campus day care or are limited by the availability of classes they need because of their schedules. Most schools offer a nontraditional services department that includes a workshop for continued academic success, but that’s the extent in terms of specialty services. I’ve found that in-class discussions are geared toward a younger demographic, often centered on recently leaving home or post-collegiate career plans.
My first few weeks on campus were incredibly lonely, even as I wandered through dense and noisy pockets of students trying to recruit for their organizations. I was delighted when two women approached me while I waited for my coffee and complimented me on my pants. When I began to chat with them, they asked if I was interested in getting to know Christ. I wish there were some sort of secret signal older students could send out to each other as we pace campus, if only to find one another.
I don’t have relationships with the other undergrads, but because of this, I’ve developed relationships with my professors, who I’ve found to be more receptive to me because of how engaged I am. As a freelance writer, I often exchange published work or research with my instructors. I always come to class prepared. I’m not preoccupied by social experiences and meeting people in class — this university is not my primary social experience.
I’ve already been through the mess of my 20s: multiple jobs, living with roommates, mastering the art of being hungover (well, sort of). I understand how important it is to make the most of my education, especially on borrowed money. Had I entered school earlier in my life, I don’t think I’d be able to make such confident decisions or carry the intense course load without the emotional maturity I’ve gained from spinning my wheels and making mistakes — from crashing my bicycle and knocking out my front teeth, to falling in love with the wrong person multiple times, to having the power turned off in shared apartments, to being fired (more than once).
My “gap years” were an investment in my own curiosity and a chance to fail spectacularly. I allowed myself to flounder before I resolutely decided what I wanted to pursue. I wasted time I would’ve wasted anyway at a four-year school — but without a crushing pile of debt and with professional work experience instead. Even though I sometimes feel as though my educational history and résumé are held together with duct tape and spit, jury-rigged from years of experimenting and sheer determination, I know that my path, while untraditional, is mine.