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Debra JohanyakGet a Group!

Older Students Have Much to Offer Their Student Peers

by Debra Johanyak

Returning to college is exciting for students of all ages. In addition to working toward a degree or certification, students get to meet other new enrollees in the classroom and on campus as they build a social life around academic pursuits. People soon find themselves in the midst of a bustling new lifestyle centered on enthusiasm and creativity.

However, those who have been out of school for a few years, typically referred to as “non-traditional” or re-entry students, may feel a bit nervous in stepping over the threshold of their campus classrooms. Uncertain of being viewed as “older” (although many are in their 20’s and 30’s) for not completing college after high school, the non-trads may hold back from classroom activities and avoid asking questions when unsure about an assignment or a reading. Restraining their needful insights and seasoned experience, they may instead wait to hear what others have to say before putting in their two cents’ worth.

These older students, who may range from the mid-20s or over 70, have much to offer their student peers. Brimming with life experience or street smarts, they have come to appreciate the value of a college education and often make great sacrifices to return to college while managing a marriage, raising children, or caring for elderly parents. Some are building a career or commencing retirement. Others have just returned from military service or are overcoming a physical or emotional

Many non-trads, among them single moms, mid-lifers, and even retired seniors, may hesitate to plug into the campus scene due to uncertainty about how to fit in. Some worry that younger college students will view them as out of the pop culture loop while others wonder whether they have what it takes to earn that elusive degree. Thankfully, this is one of the basic problems facing returning students that often can be managed quickly and effectively. As any member of a minority group can attest, there is safety in numbers. Moreover, joining with those of our own kind makes us feel less vulnerable and more powerful. We may develop enough courage and self-confidence to share stored knowledge and glean more educational insights through classroom interaction, no longer feeling insignificant or out of place.

Returning students frequently become star pupils. They find a personal voice, learn to rely on their instincts, and hungrily absorb new knowledge through learning experiences that prepare them for future careers and versatile lifestyles. Older students are among the most conscientious, hard-working, and enjoyable people to work with in and out of the classroom, and they typically provide a wonderful example of perseverance and serious effort to younger students.

The herd mentality is a sound strategy. It has, after all, helped to ensure the survival of those who might not fare as well on their own. In a college setting with demanding instructors and competitive peers, older enrollees attract like-minded students who are determined to be successful and to pool their strengths. That is why it pays to join a group of students in similar straits. It is a good idea to be aware of the need for and benefits of a support group for nontraditional students. A working definition of a student group for older returnees can vary, but many campuses define a non-traditional or adult student as someone who is age 25 or older. Some may be married; others might be working full-time office or
factory jobs. Those transitioning from one career to another may fall into this category as well.


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