Back to school: What non-traditional students wish they’d known

Published by Rachel Arceo on

Larisa Czernowski and her daughter pose on the UCC campus.
Picture provided by Larisa Czernowski.

Most people can imagine a freshman college student: nervous, insecure, trying not to feel wholly out of place and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Now take a moment and truly picture this student.  What do they look like, how old are they? What is this student’s story?

You probably did not picture a 32-year-old single mother, recently job displaced and looking for better opportunities, or a 54-year-old Navy vet, but if you did, you are closer to the truth of the reality of community college life. “Non-traditional” college students are more prevalent than many, including themselves, think. More and more students who don’t fit the “straight out of high school” trope are coming back to school and coming with their own sets of fears and challenges.

Masterchief Petty Officer Kelly Buzby went back to school to study writing and literature.
Picture provided by Kelly Buzby

Larisa Czernowski is a second-year UCC student who lost her steady job at Addcox Heating Center at the beginning of 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic.  She was anxious about what to do next and how to provide for herself and her 8-year-old daughter.  Czernowski had often thought about going back to school and knew she needed a career change, but was still in doubt.  “I had always struggled in school, so I didn’t think I could learn,” Czernowski recalls. Despite thinking she wasn’t “smart enough, or rich enough, or didn’t have much support or a failsafe,” Czernowski started school in the 2020 fall term at the urging and help of the late Danna May Blommer, UCC’s career coach. She recalls Blommer saying, “If you keep waiting for everything to align, you’ll never start.”

Masterchief Petty Officer Kelly Buzby is a retired Navy master training specialist and electrical engineer looking to change his physically strenuous career after a work injury made it impossible. He decided to go back to school, first at San Diego City College, then after a would-be move to Washington, he moved instead to Roseburg which brought him to UCC to study writing and literature.  “I was most nervous about the age gap,” Buzby says. “I didn’t think I would fit in.  My fears weren’t founded,” he says with a small laugh. 

Many adult students share the same fears and anxieties of most traditional students, but the reality of the situation is that “nontraditional” isn’t, in actuality, that nontraditional.  Steve Rogers from Umpqua Community College’s IT department reports the average student age here at UCC is 34 years old. He also says that 13% of UCC students transferred with prior college credit (suggesting the nontraditional status), and 31% of UCC college students were born before 1979.  “I’m in class with more adults than young students,” Czernowski says.

Rachel Arceo gives tips to help new or returning college students attending UCC.
Infographic by Peyton Manning / The Mainstream.

“People tell you that if you don’t know what you want to do by the age of 25, you never will.  It’s just not true,” Czernowski says. Czernowski herself found her interest in social work through the process of getting help here at UCC. “Nobody really tells you just how many resources and support there is for people that come from varying backgrounds,” Czernowski says. “There are so many resources to help people like us that are coming from some sort of hardship.”  

Jessica Richardson, the UCC recruiting and advising coordinator, acknowledges the challenges for nontraditional students. “Nontraditional students face extra challenges like childcare and financial hardships, and they often think the resources like scholarships, school supplies, laptops and gas cards aren’t for them.” Richardson is adamant about wanting UCC students to get help; “The resources are here for all UCC students, nontraditional and traditional alike,” she says.

“There are so many different ways to pay for school. FAFSA is available for everyone, and there are multiple scholarships like OSAC and UCCS available to students of all ages and backgrounds,” Richardson says. There are also several programs around the school in many departments to work for school credit and tuition waivers.

For nontraditional students 60 years old and over or receiving social security disability, students should see Accessibilities Coordinator Les Rogers about the UCC Gold Card discount.  Students can receive 50% discounts on credit course tuition with a 20% discount on selected community and workforce training classes and get free admittance to UCC fitness facilities.

Richardson also encourages nontraditional students to acquaint themselves with the new and improved student resources page (from the UCC main page, go to student resources).  On this easy to use interface with a blend of UCC and community resources, students can click on the colorful buttons and get help or information on various issues: food assistance, mental and emotional health, housing, campus activities, student basic needs, learning support, registration and advising, general information and childcare.  In fact, UCC has a contract with Maple Corner Montessori to provide a day care at The Ford Childhood Enrichment Center on campus, available to UCC students and teachers.

TRIO advisor and student advocate, Destiny Hunt, encourages nontraditional students to ask questions and make connections with students and teachers alike.  “Lean in to learning new things, you may have to spend mental energy to do the intimidating, but you can break it up into baby steps or get help.  Often you find it’s not nearly as big as you feared.” Hunt encourages nontraditional students to take an active role and speak to their professors about their work and any challenges coming up or form study groups with classmates. “The more connected you are, the more supported you are, the more successful you are likely to be,” Hunt says.

Czernowski finds the experience of going back to school life-changing. “It has redefined core beliefs like self-esteem and self-confidence.  It is one thing for people to tell you that you can, it is another thing to put in the work and experience the result,” Czernowski says. Through the aid of her student ambassador credits, her UCC scholarships, and the Pell Grant, Czernowski is more financially stable than pre-pandemic.  Czernowski is now well on her way to transferring to Portland State to get her bachelor’s degree in social work and eventually her master’s and CADC and LDSW certification.

Buzby, who just started here at Umpqua Community College this fall, admits to advantages in being an older student. “My discipline is better,” he says. “My commitment is better.  Now, I go to school to learn.”

Although going back to school may be daunting, UCC has an abundance of resources to help with the variety of education or personal challenges, whichever age you start here.  As Czernowski says “Age is not a barrier, or at least, it shouldn’t be.”

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