Introduction. I entered the university system after leaving four years in the U.S. Navy. My head was filled will all kinds of doubts and misinformation about what my experience was going to be like for a student, who does not fall into the traditional college age range, 18 to 22. Some of the questions that ran through my head: will I be the grandpa of the class? Will my peers automatically reject my ideas and input because of my age? How well can I expect to do after being out of High School for such a long time? How well will I reasonably expect to adjust after leaving the military, its mindset and lifestyle? What if I do not finish? Is the university system even worth my time? After all, see the graphic below that elucidates some statistics about students in the university system
My (brief) Story. My short stint in the U.S. Navy was just that, brief. When I joined, I didn't know what I wanted and certainly did not know how my was life was going to be different. But yet I still signed that dotted line and was official government property, err, personnel. Towards the end of my enlistment, I was forced to face the decision every first time enlistee does -- to stay in or get out? For me, the answer was to get out, not because I thought the military was horrible, in fact, I believe I am a much better person for enduring the military's required hardships and sacrifices. My decision was based on wanting more. For me, the university was one way to achieve my goals (and thank you to all the U.S. taxpayers out there, the Post 9/11 GI Bill is a fantastic program, covering not only my tuition but books and housing as well in return for my service).
What my University experience was like. In the hustle and bustle of leaving the military and relocating to the general area that I entered the military from, I did not give a lot of thought to the exactness of the degree program I was looking for. This fatal flaw in my thinking caused me to flop around a bit before settling on Regent University and its Information Systems Technology Bachelor's degree. Regent is a small to midsize private University in Virginia Beach, VA, which is a stones throw from where I was stationed. Thankfully, nearly every credit I took beforehand was transferred and counted towards the Regent degree. My time at Regent was spent, mostly, with a sanguine mindset. I felt at the time and still do today, that Regent offers a high quality education with the right mix of hands-on professor accessibility and spirituality that allowed me to grow. And grow I did. But that is not to say that Regent was perfect in every aspect, in fact, if perfection is what a student seeks, they will likely be disappointed by the university system because at least in the technology sector, growth happens very fast and universities may not be agile enough to adapt the courses to those concepts and technologies before the next wave of changes happen.
So in sum, I never dealt with my opinion in the classroom being degraded or disregarded because I was older than most. However I will say that sometimes mentioning that I am prior military brings a lot of confusion as to what that actually means (read: no, I did not kill anyone and no, I do not have PTSD). What being prior military means, at least to me, is that the fortitude and resolve ingrained in you while in the military will work well in your favor when classes get hard, deadlines need to be met and you are forced to deal with less than fair professors and peers. I attribute, in part, my time in the military to have helped me push above and beyond what was required, obtaining three entry-level I.T. industry certifications (CompTIA Security +, Network+ and A+) and publishing not one but two course papers with Dr. Choi, one of my old professors.
What I learned a non-traditional (and/or prior military) student adds to the classroom.
Perspective. Chances are you have held a job (or two or three) as a non-traditional student. You know how to get things done and on time. You have also had the pleasure (and displeasure) of working with others in a team setting before. More than that, you may have had the chance to use your perspective to understand what is important and not important for your life. One way to gain perspective is to take additional time after High School but before the University to (hopefully) gain this extremely valuable perspective in your life.
Variety. Non-traditional students come from all walks of life and are bound to mix up the traditional status quo of the classroom. Some may be career switches, prior or current military, late bloomers who now know, albeit later in life what they want, or perhaps retired folks looking to grow themselves in an area that interests them.
Passion. With all the buzzwords out there today, passion seems to be at the top of the list. Employers want passion because presumably it means you will do a better job and with follow through. But at least for me, passion partly comes from knowing where you want to go even though the road to that place may be partially undefined, after careful self examination of what your life work ought to be and what is and is not important. It is a well known fact that stress is a great motivator and perhaps for the non-traditional student, the feeling of being "behind" others spurs the motivation to find one's passion in an industry, hobby, mentality or lifestyle.
Pliability. It is a commonly accepted notion that younger minds are better at information intake and learning new languages and skills than older ones. The term neuroplasticity is often thrown around to convey the idea that learning, habits and even injuries change the literal inner workings of your brain over a lifetime via synaptic connections. But I would like to posit the idea that while younger minds may be better at academic information intake, older minds are better processing that information and connecting parallels to other, often related ideas. I feel that as a non-traditional student I was less focused on acing that final exam and more focused on the content and the ideas presented therein.
Uniqueness. It is true that every student is unique. But for the non-traditional student, being unique is his/her trademark. Interesting hobbies, prior jobs, character, and relationships all contributes to the quality that this type of student brings to the classroom and beyond.
Conclusion. I have found that there are a lot of misconceptions about the two student types discussed in this blog, the non-traditional and veteran student. I believe these students often have value added character traits and learned qualities that make them indispensable in the modern classroom environment. Further, there are also misconceptions about the Montgomery and Post 9/11 GI Bill, which are NOT entitlement programs but rather recompense for the willingness to put his or her life on the line. I have chosen, along with a few other veterans in the same unit, to fully take advantage of this wonderful program and I sincerely hope more do as well.