I’m a Nontraditional Student: What I Wish My Professors Knew

Nontraditional Learning
Mental HealthOnline LearningStudent Success

Article Summary

  • Between 2005 and 2015, colleges and universities saw a 35% increase in the number of college students aged 25 to 34. By 2020, that figure is predicted to increase to 46%.|Read the story of Amber Johnson, a 35-year-old Medical Humanities student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and learn more about what she wishes her professors knew about being a nontraditional student.  
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Between 2005 and 2015, colleges and universities saw a 35% increase in the number of nontraditional students aged 25 to 34. By 2020, that figure is predicted to increase to 46%. Motivated by the lasting pangs of the recent recession—which impacted those without college degrees particularly hard—people across the country are going back to school.

To shed some light on this unique learner demographic, we asked Amber, a 35-year-old Medical Humanities student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, to share her experience as a nontraditional student—and what she wishes her professors had known.

Amber’s Transition from Working Professional to Student

Think back to your first day of school. Remember the palpable excitement, rush of emotions and smell of your books? Can you still feel the youthful determination to impress your professors? My experience was a bit different. I’m part of the 33 percent of nontraditional college students that make up America’s student body, and my experience has been vastly different than what we typically associate with undergraduate students.

My name is Amber, and I’m a 35-year-old woman who has managed businesses across the country for the past 17 years. At least that’s who I was before I lost my mind, grew a heart and developed the determination to go back to school and help others. Now, I’m a Medical Humanities major with a pre-med concentration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Quit your job, go to school full-time, gain an education and apply for the next job. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly.

Making the Switch of a Lifetime

Before making such a stark change, I was an accomplished hair stylist traveling the country for major shows and teaching the trade at reputable salons. I was earning a six-figure income and living in Manhattan—but something was off. I always associated a cold superficiality with my past profession. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great time, but I had no sense of purpose. I really wasn’t bettering people’s lives.

My mother was a nurse, and growing up, I remember watching all the popular medical shows and the lengthy procedures, knowing they were making a difference. While my old career allowed me to live comfortably, I would find myself hearkening back to those days. Eventually, it just clicked. I knew what I had to do. So, at 35 years old, I decided to go back to school for the first time in 17 years.

I enrolled at UTSA, put in my two weeks, sent some boxes and duffel bags to my new home and set out toward San Antonio.

The Unique Challenges and Life Lessons of a Nontraditional Student

After being a working professional for so long, I thought learning would come naturally to me. However, I was shocked to see just how different the classroom is today. While it’s been an amazing journey, there are definitely some lessons I’ve learned that I think my instructors should know about.

Group Work

17 years ago, I was used to print textbooks and assignments we did on our own. Specifically, work that was based on individual learning and performance. Now, most of my instructors use group work more frequently—each with their own unique approaches to organizing and grading that work. As a result, the grades I earn often rely on the collective efforts of four or more people.

Expectations for Older Students

Speaking of age gaps, I was surprised to learn that most of my professors are around the same age as I am. While the difference in age between my peers and I has proven difficult at times, it also provides its own unique advantages. Professors have come to expect more from me, which helps me push myself to delve deeper into the coursework and develop a stronger understanding of my lessons.

Learning is Easier When You’re Passionate

Pushing myself to get the most out of my studies has taught me something surprising: that I actually love to learn. These days, I’m a sponge—absorbing anything and everything my professors can teach me. But that wasn’t always the case. When I was working, I was the one ­teaching rather than the one being taught. Back then, it seemed like I valued my time differently—whereas now, I value the time I spend learning.

I think this is due in part, to the limited distractions I have now compared to when I was working. Being a student means there’s less time to spend going out to dinner, hiking, traveling, etc. Plus, my limited budget has made it a lot easier to live with fewer distractions like these.

Shifting My Focus to the Future

This new life has helped me focus on my passions—and more importantly—highlight my goals for the future. When I graduate, I want to spend a year or two working in the social services field helping people in third-world countries. Now, I finally get the chance to reciprocate and be that helping hand for others.

Looking Back

While my story definitely shocks fellow students—especially when they hear of the life I left behind—I wouldn’t change it for the world! I don’t know what the future has in store for me, but God has gotten me this far and I have no intention of slowing down anytime soon.

Interested in hearing more stories from recent graduates and current students? Check our article, I’m A Recent Grad: Here’s What I Wish I Had Known as a Student.