The Journey of a Non-Traditional Student

Kemuel BenyehudahKemuel Benyehudah

Non-traditional undergraduate students are considered age 25 years and older and working full time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As a non-traditional student returning to college in 2006 the social disparities between my peers and me were clear. Most of my younger classmates worked part-time jobs and attended school full time; while non-traditional students (such as myself), worked full time and attended school part time. I discovered attending school full time with minimal outside commitments was a leisure afforded only to a privileged few.

Thorstein Veblen, in his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, describes “conspicuous leisure” as a privilege afforded only to the upper classes. Unfortunately, non-traditional students, especially working-class ones, are often segregated from the leisures of mentoring, counseling, socializing, graduate assistantships and attending seminars — due to their social and work commitments outside of school. Often tension and stress is created from the “double consciousness” created from two separate lived experiences: “student life” versus “real life.”

Intersectional identities — such as professional, parenthood, and caregiver — all require labor and time; each non-school identity siphoning time away from school work. Living in a constant “liminal space,” requires non-traditional students to continuously make “hard choices” on whether to prioritize their school lives or their lives outside of it. Of course all students are dealing with a semblance of these choices. But, perhaps those students juggling more out of school identities are at higher “risk” for less-favorable outcomes in school.

As in the undergraduate context, non-traditional students’ moving into the graduate space still face having their unique histories erased and not affirmed in graduate programs. University classroom cultures often privilege textual meaning over the real-life experiences that many non-traditional students bring with them into undergraduate classrooms. This marginalization can create a culture of oppression leading to the “double marginalization” of non-traditional students in traditional classrooms. Othering non-traditional students as outsiders in the university culture and silencing them as interlopers on established norms is dehumanizing.

Although I finished my undergraduate degree, I spent a large amount of time segregated from institutional resources while in college. Experiencing resource segregation in the undergraduate context left me feeling dislocated in the school and later affected my performance in the workforce. After graduating from Hunter College I remember feeling despondent and lethargic after an alienating undergraduate experience on the margins due to working and attending school full time.

Post-undergraduate school, I worked for four years in a position not entirely related to my real interest. But I was mostly grateful to have escaped the stresses of undergraduate school, happy that I survived and even graduated at all. Nevertheless, I spent the next phase of my development – the workforce –  feeling misaligned from my true purpose — continuing my education.

When I finally returned to graduate school to study education, I decided to create a student organization called “Students to Scholars.” Students to Scholars was envisioned as an out-of-school context designed for non-traditional students to reconceptualize “themselves” within the university space.

Students to Scholars provides students with a “counterspace” to resist against institutional silence and segregation from graduate resources. “Popup communities,” or “temporary communities” — such as Students to Scholars — help non-traditional students to overcome feelings of marginalization, as well as reflect on personal academic experiences from which to theorize. Theorizing about their experiences and writing themselves into the academic literature — these are all actions for establishing a “counterculture” to mainstream academic norms which “overprivilege” traditional academic culture: objectivity and distant research.

As long as modern universities continue to neglect non-traditional students’ experiences in the undergraduate context, non-traditional students will remain “at risk” for longer degree completions and misalignment in the workforce. Thus, this will saddle them with larger debt loads and exacerbate inequality in schools and society. As the recent Mizzou and Yale protests demonstrated in 2015, universities and their students are indeed struggling with a perception gap in what college students’ experiences should look like. Bridging these gaps will require not only top-down models of research, but also bottom-up ones reflecting the lived experiences of non-traditional students themselves.

Otherwise, perpetuating institutional neglect of non-traditional students in graduate programs will leave many of these students at a continued disadvantage to traditional students in graduate milieus. Learning from the Kerner report outlined in 1967, the nation was warned that it was moving toward a separate and unequal society for Black and White citizens. Today, colleges and universities must be alerted to the unequal society being reproduced within the higher education pipeline due to resource segregation.

To better serve non-traditional students in higher education, it is time to reconceptualize non-traditional students as a “resilient” classification that is pertinent to both the undergraduate and graduate contexts. Reclassification would represent an update and acknowledgement of the intersectional identities — tied to labor — that non-traditional students continue to carry with them and experience long after post-undergraduate life.

Kemuel Benyehudah is currently a master’s student in the Reading, Writing, and Literacy program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.