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Why I love non-traditional students

Published on June 29, 2013 by in teaching

student mom

One of the best things about my job is that I meet new and interesting people almost everyday. Each class is filled with people from all walks of life. This is especially true at the college where I teach. Our student body is diverse, made up of people from many different cultures. We get students fresh out of high school and we get adults of every age that come back to school after a long hiatus.  Some of these students fit into the typical stereotypes, others surprise you.

In my first semester teaching an introductory biology course I had a student whom I will call “Mike”. Before the semester begins we get a roster of our class, complete with pictures from the student ID cards. Mike’s picture immediately stood out to me. He was clearly older than the other students, had a full beard and a somewhat wild-eyed expression on his face. On the first day of class he came in covered with tattoos and looking a little menacing as he sat in the back of the auditorium. I thought for sure he was going to be a trouble maker. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, he was the best student I had that semester. He had been out of school for a while but was back to study for a degree in nursing while working the night shift at one of the local hospitals. His grit and determination were impressive.

I have a special place in my heart for non-traditional students. My mom pursued an associates, a bachelors and a masters degree while having five young kids at home. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I feel called to this vocation as a teacher. My childhood was framed in the context of higher education and learning.  I tell my students if my mom could do it, they can do it too. Nontraditional students come into the classroom with a lot of different challenges. They have kids, jobs, spouses and aging parents. Most haven’t had a biology class since high school, if even then. But if you ask my colleagues, non-traditional students are often some of their favorites and here are few reasons why:

1) They are motivated. They may not always understand the course material, but they have the internal drive and motivation to put forward the work to learn. They work hard and they make time in their busy lives to study.

2) They take responsibility for their grades. We often encounter students that blame professors for their bad grades and poor performance. It is refreshing to have a student that accepts responsibility for their success.

3) They are interesting. My non traditional students have a wide array of life experiences. Some are parents of children older than my own and share their own war stories of raising kids. Others own their own businesses or have amazingly cool hobbies (i.e. dressing up in elaborate costumes for zombie walks and DragonCon). It is fun to get to know them.

Each student embarks on their own personal journey in education. Some of those journeys are a straight line from start to finish while others zig and zag taking lots of twists and turns. I am privileged to be at one stop along the way.

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