Non-traditional students seek to find niche

By Nicole Johnson

It is the middle of the afternoon and freshman interdisciplinary studies major Lori McDaniel is finally bound for home after a grueling overnight shift at work followed by an exhausting full day of class.

The 44-year-old single mother now has to focus her attention on the most important aspect of her life, which is being the matriarch of her family.

She, along with more than 20 percent of the student population, is considered a non-traditional student. The term is used for students over the age of 25, married or who have children.

For many, finding a balance between school, work, raising children and being a spouse is a task that is easier said than done. But for McDaniel, the problem is overcome by sheer determination and standing strong in her faith.

“The one thing that works for me is always, before anything else, make sure that you have that time alone with God sometime during the day. You have to make that a priority. And then everything else tends to fall into place,” she said.

McDaniel explained that the advantage of being a non-traditional student is she brings life experiences to the classroom. While her professors are speaking about certain issues and events, she can relate because she has lived through them.

The disadvantage, however, is the generation gap. Being substantially older than her peers creates uncomfortable circumstances that result in being an outsider.

Graduate management student Ruby Bowen, 32, is a wife, a mother, works full-time and is currently pursuing her life-long dream of becoming a commercial pilot. She explained that when her higher education journey began, she struggled with finding her place.

“You don’t really fit in anywhere. You need someone to point out where you can fit in,” she said.  “I did not feel like I fit in when I first started college. I felt like I had to go ‘hey guys, notice me.’”

Over time Bowen became involved in activities at the university that aided her integration into student life. She motivates other non-traditional students to do the same.    “Find your niche. And if there isn’t one, then make it,” she said. “That’s the best thing you can do. You just have to make yourself get involved.”

Non-traditional students have many reasons for pursuing a degree in this season of their life.

For some it is a matter of raising their children before receiving their degree while others do it for the success of their family. Many students just want to simply begin a quest toward a deferred dream. But for senior art education major Iona Gazzola, it was all of the above.

After raising her two children, 60-year-old Gazzola, and her husband of 43 years, decided to cure a case of empty nest syndrome by living in Europe for a few years.      Upon her return to Texas, she quickly discovered that even with decades of experience, she could not get a job in the education field without a degree.  With her family’s support, she decided to overcome her insecurities and take the first step in fulfilling her goals of becoming an art teacher.

“In a family meeting, we all decided that Mama should go back to school,” Gazzola said, “which is something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. I had to look within myself and tell myself I’m doing this for me.”

Gazzola is now approaching graduation and inspires other students to stay encouraged because it is worth it in the end.

Gazzola said, “Hang in there. There’s going to be some tough times, but I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me. That’s one of the scriptures that carried me through.”


Author: The Bells Staff

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