Confessions of a Nontraditional Student

From observing "wires hanging" from her peers' ears to pondering the art of not-looking-up-while-texting, Michelle Edwards isn't your typical CMU student but she's learning to feel here at home among her fellow Chippewas. This is both a humorous and heartfelt piece on what it's like to be a nontraditional student on campus.

Michelle Edwards is one of many nontraditional students utilizing CMU's campus each day. (Brooke Whitten | Grand Central Magazine)

I’ve had several labels attached to myself over the years. Wife; ex-wife. Mother; grandmother. Smoker; non-smoker… well, I’m still working on that one. At the age of 40, I went out and got myself another label: nontraditional student.

It all started innocently enough: I enrolled in community college. The plan was to learn to use a computer for something besides e-mail and Solitaire. I thought perhaps I would work as a secretary for a nice, older man that thought I was still cute enough to fetch his coffee, and order flowers for his wife on their anniversary. I would take my ten bucks an hour and buy shoes and expensive coffee because I really love shoes and expensive coffee. Okay, maybe I was a little more ambitious than that, but I had no idea that a couple of years later, I would be here at CMU, trying to become a writer.

I arrived early on my first day, and sat in Lot 33 sipping some of that over priced coffee, and did some people watching. I watched students navigating the parking lot, mesmerized by how they were able to walk without looking up from their texting. I saw wires hanging from their ears, connected to iPods. I found my hand reach for the things hanging from my own neck, which were reading glasses. I flashed back to memories of the days when I looked that good in a ponytail and no makeup. As I continued to gaze out my car window, I saw more peculiar sights: is that girl wearing her pajamas?

I then thought of the teacher from my community college who made me think I could actually pull this off. I had a brief fantasy of inflicting pain on him in some slow and tortuous way. I quit looking for the shortest route to Moore Hall, and started to look for the shortest route of escape.

My first class was small, and I thought that maybe this would not be that different from community college; I relaxed. That was a big mistake. My next class was a lecture. I walked in and saw 150 students, and seats that were never intended for a 40-year old woman. Oh boy, here we go, I thought.

I made it through the first session, and in an attempt to get up and take a break, I promptly tripped and fell in front of the “cool” kids. I got up, walked out, and went home to rethink this whole decision. It was my first day of school again, and I left thinking, welcome to higher education.

I am called a nontraditional student because of my age, but we are also single parents trying to make a better life for our kids. We are laid off workers with families to support or business people that never quite finished their MBA, because life got in the way. Some of us are here by choice, and some by necessity. We are often intimidated by the thought of what we are doing, and sometimes we have to miss classes because we have a sick child or parent to care for.

We sit through lectures, understandably geared to 20-year old students, and much of the time the lectures are irrelevant to us, but we learn to adjust, and try to relate them to our lives. We glean the relevant information, and sometimes make up answers to fit the context of the questions. We reach back for 25 year old memories and answer as if we were still that age; although we know it is silly, we do it anyway.

To others in my situation, I understand what you are going through. I know how strange it feels to talk to someone so young, that is just as educated and intelligent as you are, but lacking life experience. I know it’s hard to hear them complain about losing their Bridge Cards when you have three children at home to feed, but listen to them anyway. Many of them have great ideas, even if they seem a bit idealistic to us. We used to be that way too, so just smile to yourself, and know that they will learn just like we did. Most importantly, hold on to your sense of humor: you’re going to need it.

To all of you “traditional” students, reach out and say hello if we are sitting next to you in class. We are the ones with the out of style clothes, looking a bit harried, and yes, fumbling for those reading glasses. I have had a few students do this with me, and I was very grateful. We always feel out of place at first; know that we have valuable opinions and experiences, and we may make you think of things you never would have otherwise, just as you make us think. If you promise not to treat me as your parent, I promise not to treat you as my child.

I am in my second semester here at Central, and have settled in. I am more vocal in classes, and more confident. I have learned to enjoy my  younger peers, and learn from them. I am looking forward to the next year or so, and intend to make the most of this opportunity. Although you won’t see me at the frat parties, and I don’t have time to join many clubs, I know I will learn and maybe even have some fun.



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  1. 2
    Sabrina Hartel

    Going back to school is hard. I went back at 32 years old and the place was a jungle gym. I wasn’t prepared for the academic-life pitfalls and socialization amongst a mob of early 20-somethings.

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