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The Challenges of Returning to School

By Shashi DeHaan

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics' website,  “A nontraditional student was identified by the presence of one or more of the following seven characteristics: delayed enrollment into postsecondary education, attended part time, financially independent, worked full time while enrolled, had dependents other than a spouse, was a single parent, or did not obtain a standard high school diploma.” I consider myself a “non-traditional student,” qualifying as a part-time student, financially independent, and caring for my two dependents, my sons, 11 and 6-years-old. 

Having worked in non-profit management as a volunteer and as a paid staff member, I am usually a secure leader and an intentional learner.  While volunteering and working part-time in non-profits, I have been suspended in a totally different reality for the last 11 years, raising my sons as a stay-at-home mom.  Amongst many activities, my current reality involves running children to their appointments, serving meals to picky eaters, and volunteering for their school about 10 hours a week.  I am usually organizing a social event or two a month for neighbors and friends, as well.

In August, I began my first course at Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC), and despite all my accomplishments in the real world, I felt jittery. Returning to the classroom is like fast-forwarding a couple of decades.  I am living a whole new college reality.  I attend a hybrid course where much of my small group work is conducted through a weekly blog assignment.  I spend more time on the computer than in the classroom and adhere to a cell phone policy.    

Perhaps most unsettling, I am clearly much older than my classmates and possibly even older than my professor.  The 2011 Estrella Mountain Community College Fact Book reports that 63 percent of students are 25-years-old or less.  I am one of 16 students in my class and the oldest “non-traditional learner.”

All of this draws me to my most important point.  EMCC expects that many of its students are non-traditional learners.  The Fact Book states, “Personal attention and flexible delivery formats are critical to this market segment.”  I feel that EMCC not only welcomes these types of students, but also seeks and engages them.

As a mom, I have been juggling multiple schedules for many years.  However, deadlines with consequences of points lost are a definite struggle while managing a household whose priorities differ.   Additionally, I appreciate the flexibility offered by instructors regarding real life challenges. Instructors seem to accommodate students whose job schedules are rigid or whose availability might be limited by transportation and finances.  I do not recall these liberties in my four-year degree experience. 

I appreciate the Time Management online resources.  I take my textbook with me while waiting for my sons to exit school.  I sneak in classwork wherever I can, and the workload seems more manageable than I had expected.

A criminal justice student, Mirsha Borrayo, having graduated from high school more than 10 years ago, said, “I feel accepted at EMCC.  The instructors are nice to older students because we work hard."

I am grateful that my classroom experience has been a positive one.  Though my tablemate did not say it in so many words, her actions over the first few weeks encouraged me to feel that “I belong here.” 

Additionally, I appreciate the respect with which my classmates respond on blogs and in class reviews.  My father-in-law calls this a “reciprocal empowerment.”  I call it “my Estrella Mountain college community.”