Education Outside of Tradition

by Christine Andrada-Henley

I sit in the back of classes, hiding. I feel like a two-headed frog, except no one else knows I am a two-headed frog. The other students appear at ease surrounded by their contemporaries, pursuing knowledge, learning skills, sharing their ideas and Selves. They do not have to consider the nature of their presence in the class because it is the next step in the natural progression of the American-Dream social construct: graduate high school at 17 or 18 years-old, attend university courtesy of parents who have been saving for this since their bundle of joy entered the world, make life-long friends, party, dress weird, graduate, start careers, etcetera.

But I went backward and did the etcetera first. I am 40 years old, and not only do I attend school full-time, but work 40 hours a week, have two children, and can drink only so many cups of coffee.  Things slip, get pushed back, dusty, and forgotten. Each homework assignment, household chore, and task at work becomes a hurdle to jump before I can crawl into bed and not get enough sleep.

Because of this, I am what is referred to as a non-traditional student. While the term non-traditional sounds a bit off-putting, Patricia Cross, the educator credited with coining it in 1981, wanted a term which allowed those who fall outside college demographic norms to know they are not alone.

It just feels that way sometimes.

There is no concrete definition for non-traditional student, however, there is criteria as to what makes a student non-traditional:

  • delaying college attendance
  • being enrolled part-time
  • financial independence
  • working full-time while attending
  • being a single parent, or having dependents other than one’s children
  • possessing a GED instead of a high school diploma
  • first generation college students

Of course age, race, socioeconomic status, and many other factors not within the parameters of what is considered traditional can make one feel overlooked, lonely, and isolated. Without youth in an environment geared toward young people out on their own for the first time, whose focus is, ideally, education without worry over finances, the complications that come with having children to consider, and the added stress of making an hour out of twenty minutes, and fosters innovation and freshness, what do I have to offer? I possess life experience, a valuable asset sure, but how can I use it to my scholastic advantage?

Being surrounded by all this youth has me feeling exceptionally old.  And as I drag myself from one class to the next I ask my Self if it’s worth it- the exhaustion, the self-doubt, less time with my children? The answer is yes. As much as I freak out, as hard as I have to work to be successful, I love school.  I have a passion for learning.

I sit alone in front of Stevenson Union looking at the autumn trees, and am thankful for this opportunity to grow, to change, to build my Self, and gain precious knowledge.  Even if I am 40 years old and tired, it is better than being 40 years old and longing for this experience, or 80 years old and filled with regret for not having tried.  I am an autumn tree- changing, preparing for the next season, and most of all, unapologetic.

My education, bettering my mind, becoming knowledgeable, and being exposed to new ideas is absolutely worth the temporary discomfort. So while I feel self-conscious about my age, am often running on coffee fumes, and barely meeting due-dates (but meeting them just the same), I know to my core what truly matters is my education. Nothing will prevent me from this journey of self-discovery. I want to show my children education is that important, and it is never too late to pursue a dream.

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