Non-traditional students add variety to U classrooms

Mary Stegmeir

Deborah Sjostrom brings a unique perspective to classroom discussions.

The 44-year-old sociology senior said her memories of historical events like the Vietnam War set her apart from other students.

“It makes me feel very old,” she said with a laugh. “But I do like the discussion-oriented classes because I feel like I have something to offer.”

Because of her age, Sjostrom is part of a student population labeled “non-traditional.”

The University’s Institutional Research and Reporting spring semester registration statistics show 13,087 students on campus are between ages 25 and 34. Another 5,371 are aged 35 or over.

Some of these students, like Sjostrom, delayed their entry into college. Others have returned to the University to finish degrees they started earlier or are enrolled in certificate programs. Still others have taken a longer time completing their bachelor’s degrees or are in graduate-level programs.

Non-traditional students are enrolled in every college at the University. And as Sjostrom knows, adjusting to the youth-oriented University culture can prove challenging.

“In most of my undergraduate day classes, most (other students) are a lot younger than me,” she said. “It’s hard finding people to hang with.”

In summer 1997, Sjostrom resumed the education she had put on hold to work, get married and have kids.

Taking classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College for two years allowed the mother of three to reconnect with the classroom.

“I’ve always loved learning,” Sjostrom said. “I was getting tired of what I could find at the public library, and I wanted more.”

A desire for career advancement also played a role in her decision.

“There just aren’t many opportunities for advancement if you don’t have a formal education,” said Sjostrom, who was working in retail when she decided to go to college.

“It doesn’t matter if you are self-taught Ö employers want to see your credentials,” she said.

In 1999, Sjostrom entered the University. She will finish her bachelor’s degree in May and plans to apply to graduate school.

Although the off-and-on full-time student has enjoyed her college

courses, she said juggling schoolwork, family, employment and volunteer responsibilities has been difficult.

Sjostrom tries to balance her commitments by sandwiching study time between housework and shuttling her daughters to and from their jobs.

“Role strain is a big factor,” she said. “I realize that younger students have jobs too, but it is different when you have kids and a house.”

Another challenge for students returning to college later in life can be explained with the adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

“My skills had gotten rusty over the years,” Sjostrom said. “I hadn’t really done any math except figuring out how much lawn fertilizer to buy or balancing a checkbook.”

However, Sjostrom said her life experiences have given her an advantage over younger students in exercises requiring analytical thinking.

Janet Pelto, a counselor at the College of Continuing Education’s Career and Lifework Center, said it is typical for older students to worry their ability to learn might have eroded over the years.

“The majority of adults are very apprehensive about going back to school,” she said. “They don’t know if their grades will be good. They don’t know if they can write a paper or take a test.”

Pelto, who helps non-traditional students define their learning goals and explore educational opportunities at the University, said the opposite is true.

“Adults do very well when they come back to school,” she said. “The professors enjoy having them in their classes. They bring an interesting perspective because of the experiences they’ve had over the years.”

At the University and other institutions, increasing numbers of non-traditional students are hitting the books.

U.S. Department of Education statistics report 39 percent of postsecondary students in 1999 were 25 years old or older. In 1970, 28 percent of higher-education students fit into that category.

According to the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office Web site, one in every six students in the state taking post-high school courses is more than 35 years old.

Pelto said the students she works with have enrolled for a variety of reasons.

Recent economic hard times might have increased the number of older students on campus, she said.

“Traditionally, when the economy is down, people go back to school. They are looking for ways to increase their marketability,” she said.

Other students are finishing a degree or looking for a career change, Pelto said.

Jennifer Olson, a 26-year-old nutrition student, knew she had to return to school if she wanted to pursue a medical career.

“I was working as a secretary, and I couldn’t see myself doing that forever,” she said.

Olson was supposed to graduate from high school in 1994, but she dropped out. After taking night classes at an alternative learning center, she received her diploma in 1998 and went on to Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

Now a University junior with hopes of being accepted into the Pharmacy School, Olson works full time and takes 13 credits.

She attends class during the day, works at a pharmacy from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and does schoolwork at night.

“It’s been tough. Because I work, it is harder to get the grades,” Olson said, adding that her jam-packed schedule leaves little time for friends and family.

Although she agrees her life experiences set her apart from her classmates, Olson said her young appearance enables her to blend in fairly well with traditional University students.

“I don’t mind having young friends,” Olson said. “We do have a lot in common just because we are students and we experience the same things.”

Mary Stegmeir welcomes comments at [email protected]