Things I didn’t consider or prepare for, when I returned to college as a nontraditional student

It’s been almost a month since I crossed the stage at my college graduation, obtaining my Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication. As I still ride the highs of finally being a college graduate–a first generation college graduation, I want to reflect on what my college experience was like as a millennial wife and mom.

Getting your college degree is worth celebrating no mater the duration of your collegiate journey—it’s a big and special deal. In my case, I decided to return back to college nearly a decade later than my original projected graduate date, but this second go around, as a wife and mother. I was so excited to live out my college experience; I never considered what dwelling in spaces with people in different stages of life would mean to me. I guess a naive part of me thought life would pause and resume as I knew it when I returned back to school, but I was in for a rude awakening.

While yes, in my classes my classmates were my equal—my peers: outside of the classroom we were in polar positions of life, we had nothing in common. I refused to be the thirty-year-old hanging out with eight-teen-year-olds no matter how effortless the vibes were in the classroom. Because while making friends in the classroom was never challenging for me, I found that outside of the classroom where real life commenced, my life was too mature for my peers. While they pondered over getting drinks on a weekday, going out on weekday was never a thought or option for me. Not to mention, I didn’t see my peers like they saw themselves. They, newly emancipated adults living away from home for the first time saw themselves as equal to me because we were adults. Yet for me, anytime I was left alone with anyone under twenty five, I felt like I was babysitting, the mom of the group. These instances showed me that the college experience I thought I was going to find on my great return, would never find me and somedays that was devastating to live with.

Most of my classmates had a decade age span between us, making relating to each other oftentimes difficult. It took a lot of me playing catch up on the latest music, slang, and pop culture to make my presence relevant on campus, and to gain the respect of my classmates. It was a lot and it wasn’t all I had to infer. I don’t want this post to come off discouraging to any millennials returning back to college. We aren’t that old and our story isn’t over– no matter how generation Z’ers make us feel! However, I do want to offer some insight to the things I didn’t prepare for when returning back to college.

1. Being a nontraditional student can be lonely.

I think most experiences are heavily rooted in connectivity. We as humans all want to feel welcomed, supported, and seen. Sometimes I felt like my position in life alienated me, making it impossible to make effortless connections. I didn’t have the free time my peers had or the leisure to be as carefree as them. Unbeknownst to me, I harbored some resentment towards my classmates’ freedom and I had to delve into where that hurt dereived to really heal my inner child. I went about college life assuming everyone experienced college in the way that I did, because initially in my journey, my friends were nontraditional students like me. It wasn’t until they graduated that I really saw another perspective of school. The new perspective wasn’t bad, just unfamiliar, and hard for me to comprehend.

2. I felt like I had to work twice as hard as my peers to be taken seriously.

I had students in my classes that were scouted out by department heads, mentored by them. I was in the room with people that already had strong reputations. Not to mention, naturally, the younger students were more advanced with technology and other various concepts and knowledge. My first year in my major was spent catching up on technology and understanding what role it would play both in college and my career. I remember dedicating hours and hours to film projects after school and spending weekends watching YouTube tutorials on how to use certain equipment. My first semester in my major nearly killed me physically and mentally, because I did all this why balancing my two children. However, it was worth it when my work started to get noticed by the people that mattered. Overnight, I became the old lady that no saw as a competition to a name people heard frequently on campus. While being seen in this way felt good, some of the sacrifices I made to be the “best” didn’t always feel worth it when I considered my family.

3. No matter how bad you want your “college experience” sometimes you will feel like you’ve missed your time.

It was my final semester. Childcare fell through for one of my children and I had to finish school virtually. It felt like I missed every event and every opportunity that semester! With only glimpses of the fun happening on campus through Instagram, I felt like all the work I invested previous semesters to get to this point was worthless. I knew this sudden change in my school schedule and journey was going to affect me immensely, but I never prepared for how robbed I felt having to choose motherhood over a dream. I mean, the reason I returned to college was about more than my degree. Getting my degree was inevitable; I returned back to college to relive a lost dream, to finish what I had started back in 2011. It really wasn’t until I was met with constantly having to choose motherhood over my own happiness in my college season that I realized, my college dream or the way I envisioned my great return kind of died when I left and waited 7 years to revisit this goal.

4. Networking is key—meaning you will have to create meaningful relationships with your peers. This is sometimes difficult and even uncomfortable, but it’s essential.

Sometimes I felt like the borderline cool substitute teacher. She let your class watch movies most of the day, she always overwhelmed you with compliments, and always tried to keep up with the latest slang. She felt like these attempts were the only way to connect with the newest generation. You and your classmates knew she meant well, but that didn’t stop you from rolling your eyes whenever she turned her back. She too, felt that shift in energy when she entered the rooms, but she held onto whatever connection she could garner with all hope, because she knew the school day would eventually come to an end.

That’s the only way I know how to describe how I felt making connections on campus. Despite my genuine approach or yearn for connectivity, building these bridges always felt so tedious and sometimes odd, because I literally felt like I had nothing in common in with my peers and they felt that way too. It was easier to connect with my professors, but even still, because they were my professors, relationships were left mostly professional.

5. Your age isn’t an excuse to not succeed.

No matter how old you are or feel, your age doesn’t dictate your success. So what, you might have to wake up earlier than your peers, or signup for extracurricular activities, failure can never be an option–ever. Your age outside of the classroom is deemed honorable, even respected. Your oblivion to things beyond your generation might even grant you a chuckle here and there. Yet, in the classroom, you not knowing things like what male group Harry Styles was in prior to his successful solo career is seen as disgraceful, pitiful. Nevertheless, you can’t choose failure, no one will cradle you because you’re old. You’re going to have people count you out because they think you’re too old, but every time, you have to show up and show out!

Though I managed to graduate conquering everything mentioned above, it wasn’t easy. I managed to graduate college Cum Laude, a published journalist, poet, and photographer, member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and writing consultant in my university writing center. I accomplished all of this as the oldest nontraditional student in all of these spaces! Though, frequently, I felt out of place or like I waited too long to realize my college dream or expectations, I’m grateful that even in all of the adversity I faced, I was still able to conquer a longtime goal.

To anyone thinking about retuning back to college or in college now after a long hiatus, if no one’s told you today, I am so proud of you! If I could offer any advice to you, I say lean wherever your journey takes you, define a good support system, and always show up even when you feel out of place. People age, but dreams don’t!

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