Jessie Falls beams after receiving her psychology degree. .
Nontraditional students adapt, excel in four-year colleges
By India Holland
The JOMC Journal
On Jan. 18, 2011, American Express announced it would close its Greensboro Service Center. To soften the blow, the giant credit card issuer offered outgoing employees a package that included a stipend for two years of education.
Jessie Falls, who had worked for American Express for 15 years, used the layoff to her advantage. She returned to NCA&T to obtain a degree in psychology.
For several semesters, Falls toted the laptop, the back pack, the iPhone commonly associated with college students. However, at age 57, she was about 35 years older than most students. Falls recently met her goal of obtaining a degree in psychology when she graduated during N.C. A&T’s fall graduation ceremonies.
Falls’ status as an older student attending a traditional four-year college isn’t that unusual. As more companies have laid off workers, or baby boomers are transitioning into other roles,
“I returned to school after the closing of American Express, “ said Falls during an interview several two months before her graduation. “I decided I wanted to begin a new chapter in my life. Enhancing my education was a great place to start, and as a result I am perusing my bachelor’s degree in Psychology.”
Falls works with women who have been incarcerated or who are recovering substance abusers get re-acclimated into society.
“Understanding an individual’s behavior would be beneficial in the ministry in which I am currently involved,” Falls said. “I decided psychology was a great place to start.”
When asked about the challenges of being a returning student, Falls said, “I am glad to say I haven’t had very many challenges; and if any they were minimal. I am blessed not to have to work and go to school full time. I am able to focus completely on school.”
Falls, who left A&T in 1977, returned to discover the university’s technology advances. She was undaunted.
“Because of the setting I came from at American Express, it was easy for me to become acclimated to the technology. I have worked in the corporate world for so long the transition wasn’t a problem,” Falls said.
Another challenge that many students in Falls position face, regardless of age, is finding a job in today’s economy once completing her degree.
“Many jobs in my field today require a master’s degree,” Falls said. “Right now I have an internship working with children with behavior problems. I work in Reidsville at the Booker T. Washington Learning Center. It allows me to apply what I have learned through my class curriculum directly to the children in a true setting.”
The non-traditional graduate is a great asset to any company, according to Tasha Ewell, director of operations and human resource manager of Innovative Marketing Solutions in Thomasville. Ewell hires, fires and recruits for IMS companies that specialize in insurance, annuities and financial planning. She handles day-to-day HR operations for companies in Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Ewell acknowledges that the under-30 population sometimes has a hard time adjusting tostandard workplace expectations.
“They don’t stay long at a job, they move from job to job,” said Ewell. “They do not see the earning potential; it is hard to get them to get them committed or dedicated to the job. They tend to have an entitlement attitude as if they are owed something.”
In comparison, said Ewell, older employees, “have a family to take care of and a mortgage to pay. They are more responsible and have a great work ethic. They come to work, don’t socialize too much. They see work as more than just a job; they see a career. They do not want to keep moving around. They see that they can make it and provide for their family so they tend to stay where they are.”
Aaron West, who teaches Liberal Studies at A&T, says the nontraditional student is a different kind of student. “The nontraditional student tends to be more prepared for class, more focused on the school work, overall more serious about their education,” West said. “They have better attendance than a traditional student. They have their books typically first day of class, they read the class material, turn assignments in on time; ultimately in most cases based on my personal experience they make better grades than the traditional students and they are in a different place mentally.”
Some of the challenges of teaching a nontraditional student can be subtle, West added. “They are sometimes less able to deal with the newest technology in the classroom, especially if they have been out of school for a while such as blackboard,” he said. “Nontraditional students will ask more questions during and after class. They also tend to have difficulty relating to the younger classmates. They are in different emotional and mental places. The nontraditional student tends to be left out of the before-and after-classroom discussions because the activities are usually things the nontraditional student doesn’t relate to.”
For a nontraditional student, the use of Blackboard, an electronic gradebook for faculty and students, has lessened the need for traditional student study groups. Today’s classroom technology has made studying and access to course information easy and effective. On the other hand, it does lessen the need for student –to- student interaction. The newest classroom technology can be an asset and a challenge for the nontraditional student.
According to a study conducted by Joe Donaldson and Steve Graham of the University, the non-traditional student can thrive in the college environment. The study, “A Model of College Outcomes for Adults,” speaks to the college-life experience of the nontraditional student in several different areas:
- The adult learner makes up over 40 percent of the undergraduate population in colleges. Based on part-time and distance learning (via the Internet), the non-traditional student can be creative and work at their own pace and on a schedule that works for them. They do not have to be on campus to earn their degree;
- The study also found that prior life experience helps the adult learner grasp content more effectively;
- The nontraditional learner maybe a little nervous and apprehensive about returning to college; they tend to make up for the fear and lack of confidence in their performance.
Meantime, Falls, who proudly walked across the stage during A&T’s recent graduation to receive her degree, considers returning to A&T an “amazing experience.” A highlight was the support she has received from her academic advisor and psychology department chairperson, she said.
In the future, Falls plans to open a facility to help women in crisis. Falls believes such women want a new lifestyle, and that there is a need for recovery programs that will provide a safe environment for them to develop and grow.
“I want to assist women that have been incarcerated, or involved in substance abuse, with their re-entry back into society to develop a strong sense of self identification that goes beyond who they represent in the criminal justice system,” she said. “It is vital to their recovery.”