Nontraditional students continue their education despite difficulties

D.B. Widner entered the military immediately after graduating from high school in 1982. He said he could never find the time to fit in more school. Now a senior history major, he said he plans to apply for a position within Homeland Security, or possibly to law school.

Following his time in the military, Widner began a landscaping business and started a family, he said. After undergoing hip replacement surgery, which resulted in a severe staph infection, he said he realized he could no longer support himself through his business. Enrolling at the university was a chance to start over, he said.

But as a single father with two children to support, he had to work 40 hours a week during his first year of college, he said.

According to a recent study by Public Agenda on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, most students who leave college do so because the combined pressures of work and school become too overwhelming.

For the study, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” students were surveyed about the biggest challenges of balancing college in their life in order to dispel common myths about dropping out. The students listed increased work hours at their jobs as the main reason that would lead them to leave college.

“Those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills,” according to the study.

The information was based off a sample of 614 students between the ages of 22 to 30 from across the nation.

Mike Scott, director of scholarships and student financial aid, wrote in an e-mail that the university usually considers students older than 24 to be nontraditional. That could also include veterans or students with children, he wrote.

Scott wrote that university research indicates most students leave the school because they fail to connect socially, not because of outside responsibilities.

“In other words, they don’t feel like TCU is the right ‘fit’ for them,” Scott wrote.

However, non-traditional students tend to “stop out” rather than drop out, Scott wrote.

“They don’t completely drop out of school, but they do tend to stop for short periods of time to deal with family issues,” Scott wrote.

Widner said he has gotten all the help he needs from both his professors and the administration, including meetings with Chancellor Victor Boschini, to accommodate his circumstances.

“They understand; they make what provisions they can,” Widner said. “They know my situation…everybody’s helped me out when I’ve had a problem. All my instructors have gone out of their way to help me.”

Alicia LeMons, a senior social work major, said nontraditional students experience very different pressures than regular students.

LeMons is a McNair Scholar, a research assistant, a full-time student, a wife and a mother of two. She said she consistently struggles to find time to study when so many other responsibilities come first.

“In spite of it all, I need this degree,” LeMons said.

She said she is passionate about her future in working with the aging community and wants to pursue a master’s degree in gerontology.

A Navy veteran, LeMons said she started college at Tarrant County College in 1994.

Though attending college was always her dream, it simply was not an option for her after high school, she said. She left TCC when she was pregnant a year later and did not return until 2005, she said.

LeMons said the pressures she feels come from many different places because her duties as a mother and a wife come ahead of her role as a student, but that she must work to keep up her grades in order to maintain her scholarship.

During her time at TCC, LeMons started a student organization for nontraditional students to help each other cope, she said.

It was very successful, she said, because many nontraditional students have been out of school for more than 15 years and they are scared.

She said that she thought about starting something similar on the TCU campus, but that she had not yet had time. She said a strong support group helped many students at TCC and could be very successful at TCU as well.