Glasgow resident and full-time college student Samantha Johnson could serve as “exhibit A” of a growing trend being seen throughout America’s colleges and university campuses.
When Johnson enters a classroom at WKU-G, as the campus is known, she brings with her a lifetime of experiences that the average 18 to 22 year old lacks.
Johnson is a 45-year-old single-mother who knows what it’s like to brave the job market with only a high school diploma. She has raised two sons, experienced divorce, and survived a bout with cancer.
After all that, a 100-level psychology class looked like a piece of cake.
Non-traditional is Now the Norm
More than ever before, the face of the average U.S. college student looks more and more “non-traditional.” According to U.S. Education Department data, only 29% of the country’s 18 million undergraduates are what’s known as “traditional students”—those who graduated from high school and then enrolled full-time in four-year public or nonprofit colleges or universities.
Nearly one million undergraduates were at least 25, and nearly half a million were in their 30s or older.
One of those students in that last category is Samantha Johnson.
“Right out of high school, I chose not to go to college because of financial reasons,” she says. Her mom was a single mother, and Johnson decided to enter the workforce so that she could earn some money.
She had worked with Walmart through a work-study program at her high school. After graduating in 1986, she became a full-time employee at the store and stayed there for nine years. She got married, and had two sons.
When Life Intervenes
In 2004, Johnson divorced. A year later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After six months of chemotherapy and radiation, Johnson found herself at a crossroads. Not knowing which direction to head, she joined a volunteer program with Barren County schools and ended up going to the WKU-Glasgow campus to accompany kids on field trips.
During those visits she encountered James McCaslin, who was then serving as campus interim-director.
“And he kept encouraging me, and every time I was there he would say ‘You can do this! It’s easy!’ So I got up one day and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do it.’”
Johnson admits her initial confidence gave way to self-doubt. She had been out of school for 24 years, and she feared much of what she had learned had been forgotten. But Johnson says some of her interactions with at-risk youth through her volunteer efforts helped get her over the hump, and back into the classroom.
“I kept encouraging them, and saying that if you don’t pursue an education, then you’re never going to have anything. So I was basically giving them the same advice that Dr. McCaslin was giving me. So I realized that if I could encourage these students to do it, then I can do it, too.”
Wanting More, and Having Focus
WKU-Glasgow academic advisor Phyllis Reed says the fear and self-doubt Johnson faced before enrolling in college courses are common for non-traditional students. Reed also points out that many traditional college students also face crises of self-confidence along the way to getting their degrees. Still, she says it’s especially difficult for those who haven’t been in the classroom for years, or even decades.
“A lot of the fear, I think, is also over taking the entrance test to get in. You know, maybe it’s been ten, 15, 20 years since they graduated,” says Reed.
Reed and fellow WKU-Glasgow advisors Crystal Nuckols and Dick Fitzpatrick told WKU Public Radio that once older students overcome their fears and enroll in college, they often turn out to be more motivated than recent high school graduates.
For starters, the advisors say, a student in her 30s, 40s, or 50s has seen what life without a college degree is like. Non-traditional students have decided “they want to do something more, and they have that focus,” says Fitzpatrick.
Many non-traditional students at the Glasgow campus have earned their degrees “while working a full-time job and raising a family. Now, they may not do it in four years. It might take longer because they can’t take as many classes at a time. But they can get there,” says Reed.
Life as a Single-Mom College Student
When Crystal Nuckols tells her advisees that they can overcome personal struggles to get their degree, she speaks from personal experience. Nuckols entered WKU-Glasgow after graduating from high school, and worked a full-time job. During her freshman year, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter.
Nuckols continued to take classes part-time and began working at the front desk at WKU-Glasgow. She completed her degree in sociology and is now advising a lot of students who face the same types of challenges she once had to overcome.
“I have a lot of single moms, and they don’t know how they’re going to make it, and how they’re going to balance school, kids, and work,” says Nuckols. “And I just tell them what I did, and that they can do it.”
Samantha Johnson overcame her fears and began classes at WKU-Glasgow in 2010. She says she soon noticed a few things that surprised her. For starters, a lot of the knowledge she assumed had left her brain over the years seemed to magically reappear.
“I was amazed my first semester here how everything just kind of jogged back into memory. It’s like your memory is a hard drive to a computer. The information is there. You just have to tap back into it.”
Johnson also realized she had a lot to offer the younger, traditional college students that were surrounding her. Compared to an 18-year-old just out of high school, Johnson had a lifetime of knowledge and experience to draw upon.
“And I can grasp the material a lot quicker than even the students who are fresh out of high school,
because they don’t have those life experiences. So what’s been really strange is how the younger people attach to the non-traditional students and say, ‘Hey, can you help me with this?’”
Role as “Campus Mom”
When asked if she has had younger student ask her for advice, Johnson laughs. “A lot,” she says.
“At first I kind of joked about, and told everyone that I was the oldest person there. But then you have the students that will come up to you, and they ask you for advice on things like relationship problems. And sometimes they fuss about professors, and say the professors don’t understand.”
“But I tell them they have to take a step back. We’ve lived our lives, and we know what to expect, and we’re just trying to help them down the road and let them know what to expect.”
Johnson says it’s been extremely rewarding to play the role of “mom on campus” to so many younger students at WKU-Glasgow.
“Each year you can see the growth through their experiences of life, and working, and getting ready to get married and have kids,” she says.
“I tell them what will really scare them is when they hear their own mother’s voice come out of their mouth.”
Johnson plans to graduate in two years from WKU-Glasgow with a degree in sociology. The 45-year-old says she wants to go to graduate school after that, and maybe even pursue a Ph.D.
Not bad for someone who had been out of school for 24 years.