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How to Become a Successful Non-Traditional Student

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How to Become a Successful Non-Traditional Student

Colleen Ahlfs

The first step to becoming a successful non-traditional student is to be an unsuccessful traditional student. Drop out of college at nineteen and stay out all night. Take any job that you can get, and I do mean any job. Work at a fast food joint, pizza place, hotel, grocery store, pump gas, and sort cherries on a conveyor belt. Move in with your high school boyfriend, live paycheck to paycheck and party a lot. The old car you inherited from your parents will break down and you won’t be able to afford to get it fixed for a while.

After a few years, decide you are tired of making a quarter above minimum wages and decide that you are going to get a “real job.” Leave your boyfriend, move to another town and live with your mom for a while. Beef up your resume and apply for as many “real jobs” as possible, or at least the ones with the word “high school diploma or GED equivalent” in the ads. Get lucky and land a job as a bank teller. Smash your finger in the vault your first week there and never tell a soul. You will have to spend your first paycheck on the hospital bills.

Learn everything there is to know about banking. Spend countless hours reading from big, black manuals. You will start to like coffee, and drink at least two cups a day to stay awake. Make mistakes and almost get fired. Put every ounce of energy you have into your “career” only to get less than a twenty-five cent raise at the end of your first year. Then one day it will dawn on you: you will never get promoted to manager because you don’t have a business degree, not even an associate. You are a gofer! A twenty-seven-year-old glorified teller.

Meet the man of your dreams and get married when you are five months pregnant. Enjoy being a parent and quit your banking job when your boss harasses you at home about coming back to work three weeks after having a cesarean. Decide to work part-time at a coffee shop for a while to make ends meet. The next few years will fly by, and before you know it your daughter is almost five. She will be starting Kindergarten in the fall; let that be your inspiration to go back to college. Tell your husband about your four to five year plan. He will worry about where the money will come from, so you apply for financial aid right after you file your tax return. For the first time in your life, you will also qualify for food stamps.

The first year back will be hell. You will still be working part-time and taking at least twelve credits. Your husband will get laid off, so you will have to take on another part-time job. Your daughter will miss you and start to act out at daycare. On your one day off a week you will be torn between spending time with your family and trying to get caught up on hours of homework. Cry at midterms. Cry at finals. Smile when you get a 4.0.

Apply for every scholarship under the sun. Thank your mom when she sends you a little extra for Christmas and offers to pay for your summer math course. Switch your major at least once so you can graduate on time. When you receive your first scholarship, you will cry again. Write a lengthy thank you letter—not because you are obligated to, but because you are truly grateful. When you tell someone at work that you are a full-time student and they ask “What about your daughter?”, reply sarcastically, “I lock her in the closet.”

Manage your time wisely. Ask for help when you need it and say no when you have to. Push yourself. Never settle for anything less than an A. Keep reminding yourself to think about the big picture, and repeat your graduation date silently to yourself. Appreciate everyone who supports you: your spouse, kids, co-workers, babysitters, in-laws, parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, and classmates.

It takes a village to raise a non-traditional college student.