My Experience as a Non-Traditional Graduate Student

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Here I am: back in school. When I first went to college, as a traditional student fresh out of high school, I felt it wasn’t the right time for me. After two years, I made the difficult decision to drop out and find myself. The decision was not well received by family and many friends. However, I quickly discovered that I enjoyed the lack of papers and studying. It was at this point that I made the strong claim: “I will never go back to school.” In all honesty, I really thought I meant it.

I tried on many hats during my time away from school: a minimum-wage delivery driver for a local restaurant, eventually general manager of that same restaurant, yoga teacher, receptionist at a wellness center, house cleaner, flute player in the city band, and more. Amazingly, I did find myself, and the funny thing is that it brought me right back to where I said I’d never return: the educational system.

I decided to finish my bachelor’s degree online. Taking classes online allowed me to keep the full-time job that I already had and do my classwork when it was best for me- even if that meant in the middle of the night. It was hard work, but I did it. And fortunately, since I continued to work full-time, I had to take out a minimal amount in student loans to pull it off.

Finishing my undergraduate work online was beneficial for another reason: I didn’t have to worry about being the strange non-traditional student in a room full of students who were 10 years my junior. However, I was surprised to find that many of my classmates were also non-traditional. The same convenience factor that had brought me to this online educational experience had brought others like me as well. I discovered my situation wasn’t so strange after all, but I assumed that this was due to the appeal of online classes to a non-traditional student population.

I obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was really interested in counseling. This requires a master’s degree, so I began looking into graduate programs. I was happy with my online undergrad experience, but I was hungry for a more traditional setting for my grad work. I was pleasantly surprised to find that SUNY Oswego not only has an excellent mental health counseling program, but it’s also one of the few that exist in the state. Being a native Oswegonian, I felt extremely fortunate. However, when it came time to apply, I started to get really nervous. I thought: I’ve been away from the traditional classroom setting for so long, maybe they won’t want me over the applicants who are themselves more traditional and, er, young. Maybe they’ll wonder why I dropped out of school all those years ago. Maybe they’ll think I might do it again. Maybe I won’t get accepted because of all this. And what am I going to do if that happens?

Since I’m writing this student blog, it’s obvious that I was accepted. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that my non-traditional status did not have the detrimental effect that I was expecting. In fact, I was told during my group interview for the program (along with several other non-traditional applicants in the room) that the life experience obtained while away from school and out in the working world was much more valuable than I would have ever guessed. In other words, the very things that I feared might make me less appealing as an applicant actually made me more so.

I took my first two classes this summer. I find myself in a program with a mixture of students from all walks of life: some who are younger than me, some who are older; some quite traditional, having gone straight from high school to undergrad and now to grad; some who already completed a different masters program and are now back for this one; some who were in the military for years and are now retiring and trying a new career path; some who are parents; some who obtained their bachelor’s degree years ago, have worked hard in their field, and are now back to obtain an even higher degree and hopefully a better position; and some who are quite like me. Again, I found that my non-traditional status is far more common than I had thought.

Furthermore, one of the first projects I completed was on a phenomena known as the Quarterlife Crisis. Researching this topic was like reading about my life for the past ten years. It gave me closure on my experience of feeling I did not know myself or who I wanted to be, dropping out of school, swearing I’d never return, working many different types of jobs, and then winding up right back in school many years later. I discovered that many others have similar experiences, but are distressed by the belief that they are alone. For those that are interested, there will be more about the Quarterlife Crisis to come in future blog posts.

So, here I am: back in school. A non-traditional, yet not so uncommon, graduate student in the mental health counseling program. A person who swore she’d never return to the educational system, but now finds that this is exactly where she’s supposed to be right now. A potential future counselor who had a Quarterlife Crisis, successfully resolved it, and now is interested in helping others who are having one of their own. I will return with more tales soon. But for now, I need to go buy a book bag. Almost a decade away from school and then an online undergrad experience caused me to forget that such a thing exists.

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