A baseball scout once told me, “Development is a dance.” He was talking about how young baseball players don’t improve on a linear path. Some take steps forward and then back, or laterally, before figuring it out, if they ever do.
That analogy always stuck with me, especially as a non-traditional student. I did not attend college right after graduating from high school. I got a job as a soon as I graduated Xaverian HS and only after being in a work environment for five years with co-workers who had all gone to college did I realize I needed—no, wanted—to go to college. So, in 1993, at the age of 25, I enrolled as a freshman at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y. I loved college—it was so different than high school, especially the absence of bullying. My high school—an all-boys Catholic school—ran closer to “Lord of the Flies” than the “Lords of Flatbush.”
But the vagaries of life—marriage, jobs, promotions, death—knocked me off my path. It wasn’t until 2013—20 years later—that I resumed my college career and in 2017 at the age of 49, I completed my bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University’s global campus. I so enjoyed learning that in 2020, I applied for graduate school at the University of Illinois’ College of Education and was accepted into the Education Policy, Organization and Leadership (EPOL) program. Now, a few months short of my 54th birthday, I graduated in May with an EdM in EPOL from this fantastic university. This non-linear journey has been wonderful, and it is one I know some of my classmates share. We don’t all have the opportunity to go to college right after high school because sometimes life gets in the way of our plans. I wanted to share this experience because I hope that someone like me who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college at 18, or lacked the resources or self-confidence to try, reads this and is motivated to seek their own path. And if you do, I want to share some tips for us non-traditional students.
TEN TIPS FOR NON-TRADITIONAL STUDENTS
- Take classes whenever you can. That means taking classes in summer and the winter sessions; they are shorter (6-8 weeks instead of 16), and you can complete your degree quicker.
- If you can, incorporate a data science concentration into your programs. There is a growing desire for that knowledge and experience.
- Get to know your academic advisor. You will need their help often and you will rely on them to know which classes to take to have all your requirements to graduate.
- Know your requirements to graduate. Don’t waste time taking classes that don’t contribute toward your degree. Check your degree requirements and always check in with your advisor. Then keep a spreadsheet of what you’ll take and when.
- Always know when registration is. You want to make sure you don’t get shut out of a class you need; if the class is closed, you might ask the professor politely to let you in because the class is in your major or you need it to graduate. There usually is some wiggle room.
- Participate in class. Speak up or utilize the chat function if the class is on Zoom; professors appreciate involved students.
- Keep your camera on if the class is on Zoom; professors appreciate seeing you and knowing you are engaged.
- Don’t let the syllabus freak you out. The first time I see a new syllabus I always freak out about the amount of reading and work, but the professor will explain it and it will seem more manageable.
- Make connections with your professors. They know many of the important people in their field and can be a great resource to you.
- Be present: by that I mean enjoy the process as you go through it because it will be over before you know it. I can’t believe how quick my time went! Enjoy being a student and learning.
Vince Lara-Cinisomo had a three-decade career working as a journalist in the areas of sports, business and news, covering everything from the Robert Blake murder trial in Los Angeles to major league baseball in New York. He joined the University of Illinois in November 2018 as an editorial specialist. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he has grown accustomed to small-town life in the Midwest.