Shared separateness pulls older students together

Molly Moker

Thousands of young people flock to the University every day, but students who have a mortgage, a family or gray hair are few and far between.

“We tend to gravitate to each other,” said Kathy Ahlers, a 46-year-old University student. “There’s very few of us around; it’s sort of a solitary existence.”

As of fall 2003, Ahlers is one of approximately 3,300 “nontraditional” undergraduate students on the Twin Cities campus who are age 25 or older, according to the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Reporting.

Compared to the 25,430 students who are age 24 or younger, older students have a more difficult time finding each other, Ahlers said.

To give nontraditional students a chance to meet people in similar situations, the Reentry Students Organization was formed. Previously offered to returning women students only, the group began involving all older students in 1998, a group adviser said.

The group works to make nontraditional students feel more like a part of the University. It has approximately 170 members who converse via e-mail and socialize together, said Ahlers, the group’s president.

Ahlers said the organization holds social events where nontraditional students have a chance to mingle. Past activities have included bowling, nature walks and happy hours.

Coming back

Ahlers, who received a journalism degree from the University in 1980, returned to the University as a part-time student last semester. She said she came back because she is changing her career path to environmental policy.

Ahlers said she knows it is important to try to find other older students.

She said she often finds it difficult to join class study groups because many younger students don’t consider asking her to join them.

Ahlers said she does not feel professors or students purposely discriminate against her, but she does feel separated.

“Older students are definitely different,” Ahlers said. “We all stand out.”

Nontraditional students also struggle with getting fair use of University services, Ahlers said.

“Things like student counseling doesn’t always have hours that work with our schedules, so we’re paying but we’re not getting the services we paid for.”

Ahlers said because many nontraditional students attend part time, they do not qualify for internships and other academic activities.

But she said older students have much to offer society.

“Society benefits from older students,” Ahlers said. “If they’re willing to take time out of their personal life to study, that’s more valuable for society than if they just sat and watched TV.”

She said she leaves her family every Saturday and Sunday to study at Walter Library.

Ahlers said that in a few years she wants to go to graduate school.

Jerry Broeckert, a 56-year-old student, was recently accepted to the University’s graduate school for next fall.

Broeckert graduated last semester from the Inter-College Program.

When he left California State University-Sacramento in 1981 to go to Japan with the Marine Corps, Broeckert had three credits left to complete an undergraduate degree.

He came to the University in 2001 and finished his undergraduate degree last semester.

Broeckert said being an older student has not been problematic.

“I’m at a different level than most students,” he said. “They realize it, and I realize it.”

Broeckert said his age contributes to the classroom learning environment.

“Every student brings something different to the classroom,” Broeckert said. “I want to share my experiences and perspectives with them.”

Besides minor problems, such as being the only person to have the age of 56 on anonymous teacher evaluations, Broeckert said he is having a good time at the University.

“I don’t go to dorm parties and hang around with students, but I think it’s great,” Broeckert said. “I’m glad that I finally got my degree. It will be very beneficial in my life.”

Making ends meet

Gloria Marihart is a 41-year-old undergraduate who is furthering her education at the University to get a better job.

Before she came to the University, she had an apprenticeship degree. Now, to obtain more work opportunities, she is studying biology and will graduate next year if she continues full time.

Marihart attended the University from 1992 to 1995 and took a break until 2001. Since then, she has attended class full time.

Because of rising tuition, she said she might not be able to continue full time next semester.

Marihart said she has two campus jobs that pay $8 to $9 per hour, but said they are the only jobs that fit her full-time schedule.

She said the pay is not enough to cover her and her 22- year-old daughter’s tuition and living expenses.

Marihart said the way financial aid is structured is something the University should look at.

“I’m very limited as a returning student,” Marihart said. “I can’t get parental support, which is something I need, but most students don’t have to worry about.”

Office of Student Finance Director Kris Wright said if nontraditional students have a high income or many assets, they do not qualify for as much financial aid.

“These are the students who are hit the hardest with increased tuition,” Wright said.

To qualify for financial aid, she said, students must enroll for at least six credits. From there, money is given on a per-credit basis.

Wright said the office is looking to increase overall aid to all students.

A recently created committee will recommend how to better serve the University’s nontraditional students, said Don Opitz, committee chair and adviser for the Reentry Students Organization.

“A lot of these students feel like they’re falling through the cracks,” Opitz said. “We’re working to make more resources available for them.”