If you had to work full-time and care for a family member while being a married or single college student, what would your life look like? As part of a series on nontraditional students this semester, College of Education, Health, and Human Services student Robin Morris-Wilson investigates what it means to be a nontraditional student at University of Michigan-Dearborn through a student narrative lens.
According to the 2015 UM-Dearborn Institutional Research Student Enrollment report, students between the ages of 25-39 account for 57 percent of the student population. Students ages 40 and older account for 11 percent of the student demographic, whereas students under the age of 25 account for 31 percent of the student population.
The National Postsecondary Student Aid Studies (NPSAS) defines nontraditional students as independent students ages 24 or old and students under 24 who are married, have dependents, are veterans or on active duty, are orphans or wards of the courts, are homeless or at risk of homelessness, or were determined to be independent by a financial aid officer using professional judgement.
While age is one factor in defining nontraditional students, the NPSAS identified seven characteristics of nontraditional students that include being independent for financial aid purposes, having one or more dependents, being a single caregiver, not having a traditional high school diploma, delaying postsecondary enrollment, attending school part time and being employed full time.
With the complex dynamics of being a nontraditional student, there is an ongoing need for programs and services to support students who find themselves balancing the demands of school, work and life. At UM-Dearborn, among the programs and resources that currently exist to support nontraditional students is the Student Outreach and Academic Resources program (SOAR), the Women’s Resource Center, and the Retired Persons Scholarship Program and Veterans Affairs.
In September of 2016, Timothy Carter II, 34, a longtime firefighter decided to returned to college. His decision to return to school—to major in psychology and minor in philosophy—came with the birth of his son. “My wife and I decided we needed to earn our degrees in order for our son to see the foundation of education that we pride ourselves on,” Carter said.
As a youth, Carter was involved in the Detroit Area Pre College Engineering Program (DAPCEP) at UM-Dearborn. “I was enthralled by the community and the focus on education at UM-Dearborn. It was my top choice for college coming out of high school,” he said.
But at the time, Carter said his high school grades didn’t reflect his desire for higher education.
Twenty years later, however, with hard work, he was accepted to UM-Dearborn in 2016. After being admitted, he discovered the academic and personal supports available through SOAR, where he is an affiliate student.
“We started the affiliate program a couple of years ago to meet the needs of nontraditional students already enrolled on campus who sought out SOAR for support and services,” said Ellen Judge-Gonzalez, SOAR director. “Tim is a wonderful addition to our community of scholars.”
Life as a nontraditional student means that Carter’s daily routine may look different from other students on campus. “If I’m not working, I typically wake up around 7 a.m. to get ready for class. If it’s an early class day, I grab a coffee and rush to grab a parking spot before it’s too late. Otherwise, I make my son and wife breakfast and organize my coursework for whatever class I have later in the day,” he said.
While being a nontraditional student often means having more responsibilities to juggle, Carter said being an older student allows for a more focused approach to education.
“As an adult, one has set goals and has accomplished some things,” he said. “I have failed enough to know how not to fail and have distracted myself enough to know how to maintain focus. I am not here for the stereotypical ‘college experience.’ I am here to learn. I think that makes me a better student than I was in years past.”
Still, he admits that being a working husband and father can add a different dimension to his college experience—and that’s where the help from the SOAR program becomes invaluable.
“The staff aided me in finding cost-cutting resources, providing me with a mentor in my major to answer questions that come up, and offering a space to work and get essentials like scantrons, and most importantly, the life blood of my early day, coffee!” he said.
He said he also found the campus’ new START counseling sessions helpful, where he was able to map out the entirety of his educational career and set a learning path. He said being a part of the UM-Dearborn community holds significance for him. “I am honored and feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of such an active learning community,” he said.
Recently, Carter was accepted into the Psychology Honors Program. With his degree in psychology and minor in philosophy, he said he would like to develop a program to help combat PTSD in firefighters and eventually other civil servants with the hope of aiding individuals in saving their marriages, jobs and lives in the process.