Finding balance as a nontraditional student

Written by Muleskinner Staff

(WARRENSBURG, Mo., digitalBURG) — After Stacie Savage tucks her daughter into bed, she opens her books and starts working on homework.
Savage, a nontraditional student, said she balances the schoolwork it takes to earn her bachelor’s degree with her responsibilities as a full-time mom.
“It is a constant balancing act every day, and it is a struggle because it seems like homework just demands my time,” Savage said. “I also have a child, so it is not an easy thing.”
UCM’s website defines a nontraditional student as a student who is 24 or older, a parent, military veteran, married or who has been out of school for five years or more. Laurel Hogue, vice provost for extended studies, said nontraditional students make up a large part of the UCM student population.
“Under the definition of nontraditional students, they comprise about 20 percent of UCM’s undergraduate student population, and when you factor in the graduate students that number rises to about 50 percent,” Hogue said.
Vicki Orcutt, director of academic outreach, said nontraditional students go back to school when they can balance their personal lives with their professional goals.
“There are multiple reasons for returning, but many times the timing is right,” Orcutt said. “Kids are in school or have left the home, freeing the adult learner to fulfill a personal desire to complete their education. Life just gets in the way sometimes and it just takes some time to return. For others it is either a promotion within their company or an opportunity to change careers once their degree is completed. And then there are the students who weren’t ready for college right out of high school, and with some personal successes in the workforce (they) are ready to tackle higher education.”
Savage said she started college immediately after high school, but she wasn’t ready to pursue her education.
“It is hard to figure out your whole life at 18,” Savage said. “It has really benefitted me to have a few years of just experiencing life, growing up, paying some bills – that makes me a lot more mature than a traditional college student. When I go to school, I have chosen to be there.”
As a senior studying dietary nutrition, Savage said a college degree will allow her to provide a better life for her daughter.
“I’m a single mom of an 8-year-old daughter and I do not co-parent,” Savage said. “I decided to go back to school because without an education, my career skills are rather limited, and I don’t have a lot of opportunities to make more than minimum wage. I felt like I had to provide for my family, and I felt like it’s minimum wage – which is to work as much as possible just to get paid.
I compared that with having a college education and actually looking ahead to the future, actually working toward goals instead of just figuring out how to pay next month’s bills.”
Savage said scheduling classes has been one of the most difficult challenges she has faced as a nontraditional student.
“I wish that core classes would be scheduled between 8:30 (a.m.) and 3:30 (p.m.) in the day, because that is when my child is at school and that is the time that I have,” Savage said. “I don’t think the people who schedule everything are mindful that not everyone is a traditional student.
“What I do is I just schedule everything out, and if I feel that homework is taking up all of my time then I have to schedule in quality time with my daughter…I have to do the best I can, and sometimes I just do homework all night long when she’s asleep.”
Orcutt said online courses give nontraditional students more options as they work toward their undergraduate degree.
“Online courses provide the flexibility nontraditional students require,” Orcutt said. “Between work and family responsibilities, personal goals become unattainable without the ability to do coursework early in the morning or late in the evening. Additionally, for our military students, there is the short-notice deployment that can interrupt a traditional face-to-face course.”
Savage said upper-level courses are rarely offered in an online format.
“Online is my preference but there are only so many online classes, so as I progressed in my major I eventually had to take on-campus courses,” she said. “I can take the ones during the day and I can’t take the ones at night because I have a child.”
Kristie Brinkley, assistant director of student activities and volunteer and nontraditional students, said despite the obvious challenges nontraditional students face they are far more committed to their education the second time around.
“They want to be here,” Brinkley said. “They are focused on getting their degree. They are determined, and they want to do the best that they can. So they’re going to be very focused. They are going to study, they are going to work well, they want to get their group work done, (and) they just want to be able to get that degree and move on with their life.”
Savage will graduate in the spring, and she plans on getting a dietetic internship and pursuing her master’s degree. Nontraditional student services provide resources for students like Savage. Nontraditional students can sign up for their monthly newsletter to gain access to on-campus resources and special events. UCM also offers a monthly luncheon called Brown Bag Lunches where nontraditional students can enjoy free food, network, and learn more about what the university has to offer.