When you show up to college for the first time ten years older than the entering freshman with children and a past due mortgage payment to mail, the good people in the admissions office graciously bestow upon you the title of “Non-Traditional Student”. It’s not like you need an official label like that to brand you as different than the other students because the discrepancy in age and maturity is apparent to everybody. Professors usually love you and force you to give your wizened perspective on issues. Students think you dress funny, call you Mam’ or Sir and won’t usually invite you to join their inner social ring. Yes, being a continuing education student is a lonely road. The challenges of dealing with real issues on top of juggling reading, writing, and inane classes you feel you already know everything about can lead you to the brink of insanity. It can also be the most rewarding choice you ever made and open doors that you never thought it possible to access.
I was an academic joke in high school. I didn’t want to be there and much of the time I didn’t show up. I had 53 unexcused absences and yet they allowed me to graduate, probably eager just to be rid of me once and for all. I didn’t take the SAT when I was a senior. I had no intention of going to classes of any sort, especially if I had to pay to endure such torture. I had plans to live free and travel the hostels of Europe, all my worldly possessions on my shoulders, living life one day at a time. I wanted nothing to do with any kind of lifestyle that might be considered “traditional”. Wouldn’t you know it, God has a sense of humor. I actually got married four days after graduation to a United States Marine from the Bible belt where I moved from my home in carefree California and then, would you believe I became a Christian and shortly after that a stay at home mom? Astounding, to say the least. My attitude and lifestyle were radically changed. A few short years down the line I decided to revisit my dislike of formal education. My transcripts were terrible, but I did gain admission to a community college. This made the first transformation I underwent in my life seem tame by comparison. By returning to college after a significant amount of time off from high school I made the remarkable discovery that after all this time and resistance to education, I was actually an intellectual.
Living in the real world for a while can give you an edge over your classmates. Setbacks that might seem devastating to them are trivial to one who has been through the drill. I quickly rose high in the scholarly ranks, racking up semesters of straight A’s, invitations to various honor societies, and praise from everyone on campus. I began to be so excited about how decorated I would be walking down that aisle with all my tassels, badges, and ribbons. The world would know I was the next great mind of the century. I got so big for my britches that I decided to transfer my junior year to a “real” university. You know what happens next…pride cometh before a fall.
The babies kept coming, but I kept going to school, too pregnant to fit in the desks or nursing a newborn discreetly in the back of a classroom. I was now hobnobbing with the big boys in my field and I kept being told how amazing I was to be such a supermom and a star student. All that ambition and ego was taking its toll. I began to take advantage of independent studies and cut my class load in half. Grades were slipping, to say nothing of the happiness of my home. I was homeschooling two older children, going to school part time, and juggling a baby and a toddler when everything came to a screeching halt. I withdrew from classes three courses shy of a bachelors degree.
Some might question whether this is indeed a success story about continuing education or a giant red flag waving off anyone who has been toying with the idea of going back to school. True, I didn’t quite end up with the degree that I so doggedly sought those many years at the expense of much time, money and sanity. I did however learn more about myself through this experience than I ever cared to know and I am thankful for that epiphany. I learned that my success doesn’t have to look like someone else’s. I learned the hard way what the most important priorities in life are. I learned to confront challenges without fear or regret and I know that will help me on the battlefront of being a parent. I also learned to relax and trust the wisdom that tells us, “To everything there is a season”. My continuing education drama may have fallen a little short of the mark, but I still consider it to be a smashing triumph. I may be a grandma by the time I actually get to don my celebratory robes, but that is the beauty of being a non-traditional student. You don’t have to go by any time table but your own.