Perspectives of nontraditional students: Jenine Conners

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.

Jenine ConnersWhen Jenine Conners, 43, was offered a position tutoring K-12 Detroit Public School students in her hometown of Detroit, Mich., she welcomed the opportunity. The school was conveniently located one block from her family’s house—in the same building where she attended elementary school—and the hours allowed her to maintain her commitment to her two young children.

Shortly after accepting the position, she took on the additional role of administrative assistant. She managed to successfully fulfill both roles while balancing her commitments to her family. However, she quickly discovered that the rate of pay per tutor varied based on their level of education.

In addition to her administrative experience, she held an associate degree. Initially, Conners thought her take-home pay was sufficient. However, when she realized that a colleague, who held an advanced degree, made more than three times her pay, she had a change of mind.

“That was my wake-up call. Being a tutor showed me that I had the potential to be so much more. I had a gift for being able to connect with children and young adults in a positive way, to educate,” Conners said. “I wanted my own children to understand the importance of going to school, and I thought, ‘What better way to lead than by example?’”

In 2013, she gained admittance to University of Michigan-Dearborn and is currently a language arts major. Conners said she came to UM-Dearborn because of its high standard of excellence in education.

A graduate of Regina High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Harper Woods, Mich., Conners was a well-rounded student. When she graduated, though, she said her SAT scores and GPA were not great, so she didn’t apply to a four-year university. Instead, she enrolled at Wayne County Community College, where she earned an associate degree in urban education.

More than 20 years later, Conners had a second chance to fulfill her lifelong dream of earning a UM-Dearborn degree. The opportunity came through the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters’ SOAR program, which provides a wide range of support for nontraditionally aged individuals experiencing socioeconomic challenges who wish to begin or resume their post-secondary education.

Still, she said returning to college later in life came with a meticulous schedule.

“I am usually up by 6 a.m. I cook breakfast and have a little ‘me time’ before I wake my children up for school,” Conners said. “I drop them off at school by 8:30 a.m. Whether I have a class or not, I head straight to UM-Dearborn’s campus in the morning to complete homework, tend to student organization business and connect with my peers—that is something I particularly enjoy. I am usually at school until 3 p.m. Then, I head to pick up my children from school.

“When they have an after-school activity, I take them to their programs. If I have the energy and not a lot of homework, I prepare dinner and help my kids with their homework. Once we’re done with that, it’s bedtime for them, and it’s the start of homework for me. That is when I get the bulk of my homework done, while they are sleeping. I get about five hours of sleep, then I repeat the same routine the next day.”    

While remaining committed to her family, Conners said she prides herself on staying involved on campus and in her community. She views her status as a nontraditional student as an opportunity to be a role model. “I come to school to learn and grow. I do not feel the pressure of trying to feel accepted while trying to succeed academically. I also receive the support and encouragement to make the things I am passionate about a part of my daily life,” she said.

She serves as a mentor to other nontraditional students through the SOAR program. “Being able to help and encourage other nontraditional students is very beneficial,” Conners said. “It gives me a sense of purpose and responsibility outside of home.”

“Jenine is an extraordinary, highly accomplished student in the College of Education, Health, and Human Services,” said CEHHS Dean Janine Janosky, who has met with Conners on campus to discuss ways to improve opportunities for nontraditional students. “In addition to being a scholar and preparing through experiential learning for her career, she is a leader on our campus in her work in implementing an inclusive environment for nontraditional students.”

Conners said one of the challenges of being a nontraditional student is finding safe, convenient and affordable childcare to accommodate her children’s schedule and her class schedule. She said this is especially true when there are important events held on campus after 3 p.m. or on weekends. For this reason, she is not always able to attend campus events and programs.

“We have sacrificed many family experiences and opportunities because of my commitment to being successful in school. But they understand the reward once I complete this part of my life, which makes the challenges not so difficult,” said Conners, who was recently selected as a 2017 Difference Maker for her efforts to support nontraditional students.

Still, she said her drive to get involved on campus comes from the support she receives through the SOAR program, the Women’s Resource Center and the American Association of University Women. “I had an opportunity to attend the National Conference for College Student Leaders.  This experience helped me to become aware of how I could serve my community once I receive my degree,” Conners said.

Conners will graduate in 2018 and plans to open a tutoring facility for students and adults in her community. “I would like to collaborate with a local recreation center to facilitate my vision. I believe my University of Michigan-Dearborn degree has prepared me for that.”

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