Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Five No-Apology/Use-Your-Power Communication Tips for the Non-Traditional Student

I was one and maybe you are, too:

A student who is 30, 40, 50, and even 60 and beyond!

According to "Old School:  Colleges Most Important Trend is the Rise of the Adult Student" in The Atlantic, students 30+ years--the parent warriors, laid-off industry experts, career-changers, skill-builders, lifelong learners, and every adult in between--are flocking to campuses in record numbers (not surprising, given the economy, right?).

Like many non-trad students, I did not intend to be "older" in college. But my parents, who were not college educated, did not make provisions for my education and after losing a parent early (like I wrote about in this post), I didn't seek out the resources to continue at that time. My life took a different vocational path for many years, until I decided that I wanted to teach. Then, academic credentials became absolutely necessary. When I went back to school,

I was married (no children);

I worked four part-time jobs;

I took as many credits as I could tolerate in a semester (like 20+).

I won't say that those years were easy, but they are some of my proudest years.

I remember what it was like...
...to attend class after working many hours,
...to try to focus on learning when finances were on my mind,
...to pass my husband in the morning for a few moments and then not reconnect for what seemed like days if I had a lot of homework,
...to feel a little apprehensive when I spoke up in class because I was the oldest (yes, even I felt that way!),
...to rush out of class because I had work waiting for me at home,
...to wonder if it was all worth it and if I'd end up with the career I wanted.
(I was already in a well-paying vocation, but it wasn't my whole heart like college teaching).

Because I relate so intimately to non-traditional students, I thought about what communication lessons relate specifically to our incredible, dedicated population. Here's where I landed:

Never, ever, ever, ever be afraid to talk to the prof about struggles you are having!
Yes, I was reticent at times to speak in class around my younger counterparts, but outside of class? I was very outspoken, going to my profs whenever I was confused or when I felt frustrated about an exam or class policy (Truth be told, I was probably a bit of a pain in the ass, but willing to own that title). As a prof, I know that many non-traditional students are not like I was. A bunch of non-trads come to me for help, feeling embarrassed about their confusion. Or, they say, "I'm sorry. I've been out of school for a really long time."

Know that you never have to apologize for your gap in education. It does not matter. In your years away from school, you had important professional experience that is its own type of college! You deserve to emerge confidently from confusion and get the same help as a student who just got out of high school (and is likely just as perplexed as you are!).

So, when you go to your prof, hold your head up and say, "I'm so excited to be back at school after all these years and you know what? I want to make sure I have a solid handle on what I'm doing. I need your help!"

Also, always ask "Will you review work early for me? What deadline should I set for myself in order to make that happen?" and "Will you take another look if I'm still unsure?"

I know based on my degree in post-secondary ed and in my own personal experiences that adults need to a) regularly know how their doing; and b) feel validated that what they are doing is correct--or how what they're doing needs to be corrected. Get your answers and be proud of your willingness to ask questions!

Share your wisdom and experience in class!
Some non-trad students worry about talking too much in class, so they say little. Other non-trad students ask if it's okay to talk in class (It's true!). As a prof, I'm alone on a ledge sometimes, particularly when I ask a question and... silence... dead silence. Your words are appreciated by faculty and, whether traditional students realize it or not, they have a lot to learn from your articulateness, your background, and your ideas. Speak up and give lots of life/work examples. You never know when your words may serve as a change agent for another student in class. A former non-trad student who was already an EMT (pursuing a nursing degree) gave career advice to a 20-something student who wanted to know the in's and out's of being an EMT. I have seen numerous trad-non-trad relationships start in class... and linger as a mentorship or friendship far beyond the term.

If you are a talker, engage the class community.
I have had chatty non-trad students come to me privately and say, "I don't want to take over the class, so if I'm talking too much, please let me know." Just for the record, I've never told a non-trad student that they're talking too much--what they're saying is typically too rich and priceless to mute! In fact, when a non-trad student shares their thoughts and asks an open-ended question like, "What do the rest of you think?", traditional students sometimes feel less intimidated responding to a fellow student.

It's okay to challenge what you don't feel is right.
Some non-traditional students are so respectful of a prof's position/title that they don't think they should challenge anything. I think many of my colleagues would agree that we're in the wrong profession if we can't handle a little constructive criticism over content or policies. So, if you are uncomfortable about a grade you received, are concerned about other students in class (yes, I have had non-trad students bothered by other students texting, trolling FB, etc. during class), or vastly disagree with the material, use your "I" language and discuss it with your prof. No need to apologize or qualify your thoughts.

Think about it this way: I'm trying to teach students the words to self-advocate with me so they can transition those skills into the workforce. You likely have that experience already, so in the same way you'd approach your boss about a problem, stand strong and state your case.

Carry your own load; let other students carry theirs.
I have seen far too many non-trad students pick up slack on a group project or assist a struggling student with emotional or academic needs... sometimes far beyond what's reasonable. Even when non-trad students are staunch non-enablers of their own kids, they find a soft spot for another young person and jump right in to help (which is amazing and admirable, and I get it because even as a prof, I have to remind myself that students must control their journey).

Remember, your work ethic and maturity has developed; the work ethic and maturity of certain traditional students is developing. If you find yourself shouldering others' academic or personal problems, the greatest gift you can give them, in addition to your kind ear, is a pathway to the resources that can help them i.e., the professor, counseling services, educational advising and planning.

With respect to group work, you have a right to expect a certain standard and to achieve a particular grade... without doing all the work yourself (which your  groupmates may enjoy, but still...). If the situation feels unbalanced or concerning, go tell the prof, "I have concerns about the workflow in my group and I need to resist taking on the project myself." It's the professor's job to manage these types of issues.

So, my non-traditional comrades, I salute every single one of you. You are a model to your friends, families, and traditional students in ways that you probably don't realize.

You've honed your experienced, powerful voice.

Now it to propel your education.

I'd love to hear from the nontraditional students out there! How is your term going? Colleagues, what advice would you add for non-traditional students transitioning back to school? 


  1. Even though I don't always have the words to say what I want to in class, I am always elevated when someone speaks aloud the thought that I was trying to formulate. If you feel so inspired, open your mouth! People really appreciate what you have to share.

  2. Hi, Sarah,

    I agree! It's amazing how many non-traditional students will sit silently in class, believing that they might say too much. I'm going to go with your sentiment, "Open your mouth!" True that it will be appreciated and can inspire others :-). Thank you for commenting!!!

  3. Hi Ellen,

    Thanks so-so much for this post. As you know the non-traditional, older student is now THE typical college student NOT the minority.

    There is such a shortage of good advice out there for adult college kids. Your column is great and heart-felt.

    Do you have any tips specific to online college students who have to learn not just how to be a student again BUT how to be a student online in a foreign educational environment.

    We would be honored if you would consider blogging on this for our users over at GetEducated.com.

    Our audience is average age 36-41, mostly women -- another dimension that seems to impact communication styles -- and also students who typically may have spotty academic pasts or be first generation, multiple stop-out learners.

    Can you help us help these students?

    All the Best
    Vicky Phillips

  4. Hi, Vicky,

    I'm so glad to hear from you and would love to devote a special blog post to this topic, either on my blog, yours or both. I definitely have advice for the online college student :-).


  5. Awesome article! Sending it to the non-traditional students I know!

  6. Yowordgirl, thank you so very much! I appreciate it!!!! Ellen

  7. I have had professors try and say i am a traditional student because i am 20 an on track with other my age but when they fail to send me my homework in a timely manner i don't have the time to get it done because i am not a traditional student. i have a 2.5 year old at home. i have found that speaking with the professor and even a nicely worded email gets the point across and it is often then not a problem.

  8. Lindsay, I think it is wonderful that you are being proactive with the professor! Bravo to you for being in school, and especially being a role model to your toddler! Ellen