My Experience as a Non-Traditional Graduate Student

Film and Television

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.

Long Overdue Update

It has been so long since I have posted a blog entry here. As an undergrad, I posted updates pretty regularly, but as a grad student, I almost never do, and I regret that. I figured that I would take some time to post a new one. Hopefully, at least some readers have read my blog entries in the past. This is my final semester here at SUNY Oswego, ever. A masters degree is the highest degree that one can obtain here, and even if SUNY Oswego did offer doctorate programs, I have to start earning a considerable amount of money before I can continue to spend a considerable amount more, and I am not sure yet whether or not a doctorate program is even something that I want to pursue. I am having bittersweet feelings about leaving next month – happy because I will have a masters degree (which is a major accomplishment) and won’t be continuing to build up on debt but sad to leave Oswego. Over the six years that I have been here (I started as a freshman in 2008), I have, like anyone, experienced ups and downs, but I love the environment of the campus (especially when it’s not winter) and have had some really great professors whom I will truly miss. I will also miss my job (I am a desk attendant in Sheldon Hall) because it has enhanced skills such as organization skills and teamwork skills.

This semester has been very busy because since it is my final semester here as a graduate student, so I am writing my masters essay. The course on my transcript is titled Reading for Examinations, and it involves writing a very long thesis paper (mine is currently close to sixty pages) and then submitting it for assessment by a small group of three readers. Fortunately, my essay is almost finished. As I stated, it is nearing sixty pages, and not only is that about how long that it needs to be, I also feel like I am naturally winding down, anyway. It is something of which I am very proud. It is an expansion upon the final paper that I wrote for a film class (Women and Screen Studies) during the Spring 2013 semester, and my professor (Amy Shore) liked it so much that she suggested that I expand upon it for my masters essay. Because I, too, liked it so much, I followed up on her advice and have done that. I am so excited to get it officially finished and off to the readers for a final glance. As I said, researching for it and writing it has taken up a great deal of my time this semester, and it will be such a relief to be finished with it.

Graduating, as I said, though, is bittersweet, and the bitterness doesn’t just come from not wanting to leave Oswego. I have been applying to jobs since December or so, and nothing is puling through. I graduate next month and still do not have a job lined up. I know that in today’s day and age with it being so difficult to find a job, that is normal, but it’s so scary. I can’t live with my parents indefinitely, and I need to start making money pretty immediately to start paying off my loans. The most recent job to which I applied has a dual possibility (although one is a lot more likely than the other). I applied to the New Britain, Connecticut school district because there are openings for substitute-teachers (with which I have plenty of experience), and there is also an opening for a permanent position as a middle school English teacher, and I applied to both. I have not heard back from that yet, but I am keeping my fingers crossed. The state of Connecticut is at a serious shortage of substitute-teachers to the point at which students’ learning experiences are being negatively impacted, so my shot at getting a position as a substitute-teacher somewhere in Connecticut is pretty decent. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life subbing, but it would get my foot in the door, would get me more experience, and would increase my chances of being hired for a permanent position. My hope is that in a few months, I will be able to post a blog entry here with some really good news!

Although this is completely unrelated, I have recently developed a really strong interest in Wicca. For years, I have considered myself a deeply spiritual person but did not know what that meant for me. I have known for quite some time that unlike my father, I am not a Christian (despite my name, which means that I carry or bear Christ). I recently discovered that what aligns best with my own personal beliefs and whatnot is Wicca, and I have pursued that. I feel very passionate and excited because I have been buying books on Wicca and have been having a great deal of fun reading up on it. The more reading that I do, the more excited that I get; the closer to it that I feel. I just wish that this interest would have fully manifested itself earlier than it did because as fate would have it (another reason why I feel like I was mean to pursue this), I found out that there is an organization here on campus related to Wicca very shortly after deciding to pursue Wicca myself. The name of the club is Oswego State Pagan Association, so it’s broader than just being a Wiccan organization, but it’s partly what it embodies. I have not yet been to a meeting, but they meet on Thursdays, and I am going to my first meeting this coming Thursday (tomorrow) to check it out. I am really looking forward to it!

I will conclude this blog entry with some news (old news, which I suppose is an oxymoron) that I don’t believe that I have ever shared here before. If I have, then forgive me because I don’t mean to be repetitive. Some of you might remember how several years ago, I posted a blog entry about the many problems that I had with our organization, Pride Alliance. The group, for example, was far too focused on sex and not focused enough on larger societal issues, and I eventually decided to stop going because of how tiring that that became. As a graduate student, however, I gave them another chance since it was under new leadership, and I noticed a major change. The organization is now what it should always be, and I wrote a follow-up blog entry explaining how, in my eyes, Pride Alliance had reformed. I ended up (last spring) winning an award for that. It was to commemorate my faith in the organization, my willingness to give it another chance, and I was so honored and so happy. I have attached a photo of the award here for you to see. There you have it, bloggers – I actually won an award for writing a blog here, so don’t stop blogging! You really never know what will happen as a result of pursuing a passion.


Graduate School Isn’t For Everyone

Whether you’re thinking about going on with higher education to pursue a Masters or Doctoral degree, there are a lot of things you need to take into consideration before taking the dive. Financing is an obvious issue, as is how you’re going to support yourself in the meantime- you know, eat and stuff.

Beyond those types of things, there are some others which aren’t as apparent; things that don’t happen during undergrad.

Going through the History Masters program here at SUNY Oswego has made one thing painfully obvious to me: There are people who are much, much smarter than me. During undergrad I was a pretty good student. I loved studying history, writing papers, analyzing- all that stuff most of you hate. It made me seem smart because I was invested in the process. However, at the graduate level, I had to step up my game. There aren’t a ton of us in the program, so standing out negatively is easy. Teachers, and frankly your peers, expect more out of you. The days of the kid who doesn’t know what he’s talking about speaking up every class making people look good are over. You’re in the big leagues now. If you didn’t read for that day, stay home. People will eventually figure it out.

This is a good time to bring up my next point: You better love what you’re studying. If you’re pursuing a degree after your Bachelor’s it should be something you don’t mind spending every weekend for a few months…who am I kidding? You’ll probably be spending most days researching, studying, and writing about. You may have to skip out on some nights out with friends or with a significant other, which is never fun. Dedication and perseverance will be key. It’ll get tiring, trust me, but at the end of the day I’m proud of the result and focused on getting my degree. If you feel that maybe it’s not for you, do more research, talk to people already in the program and the professors in the department, and choose your University or College very carefully.

Finally, being in graduate school also brings on this feeling of limbo: Am I a student or a professional? I work 30 hours a week, but I go to class at night. How do I introduce myself in a meeting or to people I meet? I’ve personally had trouble understanding the difference. Many times I’m expected to be professional, going to meetings and creating events, but I need to make sure I’m home in time to finish a paper or study for an exam. It’s a delicate balance that will work itself out. In the mean time, do your best to just concentrate on what you’re doing.

At the end of the day, make sure you take your time with your decision and way all the pros, cons, and everything in between.

– Jon (@jonzella)