Age diversity on campus: older students take on college

All photos Taylor Meredith/Catalyst

For some incoming New College students, high school is a thing of the very recent past, with graduation photos uploaded and digitally immortalized last summer. For other students, high school took place decades ago, and those memories can be found between the yellowed pages of three-dimensional photo albums. Students at New College display diversity in a wide range of categories and age is evidently no exception.

For example, there’s third-year transfer student Jodi Johnson, age 38. During orientation week, she was continually mistaken to be a new student’s mother, and now that school has started there’s a new misconception.

“There’s a lot of confusion as to whether I’m a student or staff,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of students are surprised to see someone their parents’ age here who isn’t a professor.”

Confusion aside, Johnson says she enjoys the academic atmosphere among her fellow students. Having had prior college experience to compare her new settings with, New College is a welcome change.

“When I walk into class, everyone is sitting in the front and no one has a cell phone out,” Johnson said. “Everyone is very present. There’s a level of seriousness in the other students that I really appreciate. It helps me focus.”

There’s something to be learned from the more traditionally aged students as well. Johnson says that, by observing her classmates, she’s learned to take notes differently in order to help her retain the reading material. However, there is still a level of intimidation she feels as a result of being outside the typical age bracket in classes.

“When you get to be 20 years out of school, you almost forget what it’s about,” Johnson said. “You only remember the negative things.”

As a mother and wife with an hour commute five days a week, Johnson’s calendar has little room for free time. “My schedule is very detailed and it has to be precise,” Johnson said. “I squeeze in studying, even in 15 or 20 minute increments. I’m constantly trying to find moments where I can fit it all in. It’s not unusual for me to be doing German at 5:30 in the morning while [my son] is getting ready for school.”

Johnson is not the only non-traditional student juggling a heavy workload. Third-year transfer Kyle Larson, age 24, is in the same boat. Larson lives on campus and remembers what his first years in college were like.

“I know where [the first-years] are because I’ve been there,” Larson said. “But now, being 24 and a third-year in a place where there are not a lot of older students, you definitely feel that divide.”

While the majority of students are learning to live away from their parents for the first time, Larson is used to living completely independently and actually finds living with other people to be a foreign experience.

“Being on my own for six years and then having to come and live in a dorm environment is definitely a huge transition,” Larson said.

Aside from some of these differences, there is a unity among students at New College, and many strive to prove that it doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re in while you begin or continue your education. “I’m very open with my selection of friends,” Larson said. “I don’t discriminate because of age.”

However, according to Multicultural and Transfer Coordinator Ann Quinn, students like Johnson and Larson, who are 24 or older, are not very common at New College. The rigorous and mandatory full-time schedule, as well as the lack of online or nighttime classes, makes it hard for non-traditionally aged students to find time for class among other obligations such as family and work. Also, some may choose not to enroll because of the lack of other older adults in attendance who they can relate to.

“For some students, they visit the college and look at the environment and see how many people are in the same situation as them,” Quinn said. “That impacts their decision. Some enjoy that interaction with people of different ages, but others want to feel that there’s at least a small group they fit in with. As with all students, they’re looking for a good fit.”

For the students in this category who do end up enrolling, their contributions in class could be more appreciated than they think. Professor of English Miriam Wallace says she enjoys having non-traditionally aged students in her class because of the different perspective they can bring to discussions. However, she can understand why it’s hard for them to find their place outside of the classroom.

“I think sometimes non-traditional and transfer students are lonely on this campus,” Wallace said. “The campus tends to circulate around residential life, which is geared toward traditionally aged students.”

They key seems to be trite but true: students simply need to communicate with one another. If both traditional and non-traditional students can let their guards down and share their experiences, the results could be pleasantly surprising when they realize they have similar stories to share.

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