Rogers: Graying Gophers make great peers

Intergenerational classrooms are becoming increasingly common. Recent graduate Thom Sandberg is making the most of his return to the U.


Image by Graphic by Wejdan Al Balushi

30% of University of Minnesota students are nontraditional – often a category defined by age.

by Kelly Rogers

Thom Sandberg survived one-and-a-half semesters of undergrad before he dropped out of the University of Minnesota 50 years ago. 

“Back when I was there the first time, y’know, I was more interested in hanging out and going to keg parties,” Sandberg said. “I’m not looking for keg parties anymore.”

He re-enrolled in 2019 after retiring from a long career in creative production. At 71 years old, he’s not your typical undergraduate student. 

This educational odyssey is the culmination of his career — an inverse experience to many of our classmates. Sandberg first caught my attention when he raised his hand in a lecture about protests of the Vietnam War at the University, saying, “Oh, yeah. I remember that.”

You may have seen Sandberg strolling around campus in his custom University of Minnesota sport coat and color-coordinated hat. He’s part of the growing population of nontraditional students who are coming back to the classroom on their own time.

The Department of Education identifies age as one of the defining factors for those students who are considered “nontraditional” — more specifically, anyone who is enrolled in a degree-seeking undergraduate program over the age of 24.

At the University of Minnesota, approximately 30% of the undergraduate population is over the age of 24 — about 14,906 students.

More specifically, nontraditional students tend to have complex circumstances outside the usual volume of assignments, such as balancing family and work responsibilities or other obstacles that can impact performance at school.

Sandberg has taken the responsibility that accompanies a full-time education in stride. 

“If you factor out my grades from 50 years ago, my GPA is 3.89,” Sandberg said.

It hasn’t come easy for him, though. He’s currently getting his butt kicked in a summer-session statistics course.

Sandberg is on a roll. He graduated with the class of 2023 with a double major in history and urban studies, and in the fall he’ll matriculate into the masters of urban and regional planning program at the Humprehy School of Public Affairs.

City planning is a sharp left turn from his lifelong career as a creative director in advertising. Then again, everything about Sandberg is charmingly unconventional. 

“Doing well was really always the question,” Sandberg said. “I felt too unprepared at the time. I mean, I think I’m a smart guy, but you never know how things will go with other people too.”

His self-deprecating reflections are shared by many nontraditional students who wonder if they are cut out for college life. 

Nontraditional students are often excluded from campus events. 

The critical connections that are made in the grimy freshman-year dorms or at cheesy orientation events are often the foundation of a student’s social network. To combat this quandary, Sandberg insists active participation is the way to go.

“I’m trying to immerse myself in both the learning and the students. I want to be a real part of it,” Sandberg said. “You have to have skin in the game. You have to worry about the midterm. Do the readings for class. I feel inspired when I get to say ‘Yeah, man, I got murdered on that quiz,’ because it makes me feel like I’m a part of it.”

Plus, he said, “Nothing is cooler than walking across campus and having somebody go ‘Hey Thom!”

While Sandberg’s degree is somewhat decorative, his story has changed the way I view my own education. He’s revisiting this environment free from the stress of the unknowable future that looms over so many students’ heads. 

“For me, going back to school is a race between graduation and Alzheimer’s,” Sandberg said.

But his accomplishments are no laughing matter. 

Sandberg’s continual pursuit of education is a reminder nontraditional approaches are beautiful in their own right. And, most importantly, it’s never too late or too early to pursue a dream.

“Do the best you can and party on,” Sandberg said, offering some sage advice.

Thanks, Thom. I think I will.