The upstairs toilet is wobbly. It’s been this way for a few months. Whenever someone sits on it or shifts their weight, it makes an unsettling clunk. Strangely, that’s not the upsetting part to me. See, I know how to fix it; in this age of YouTube and WikiHow, you can find and teach yourself how to do almost anything. I know what tools I need, where to get them, and I even have the funds available to take care of it. What I don’t have is time, and that is largely due to my decision to continue my education as an older, non-traditional student. According to the American Council on Education’s “Post-traditional Learners Manifesto,” as many as 40 percent of undergraduate students nationwide are non-traditional, defining non- or post-traditional as over the age of 25 with varying factors such as financial independence, number of dependents, high school graduation status, and military experience.
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Like many of my cohorts, I was sold the line that higher education was the golden ticket to a successful life. Off I set at eighteen to Eastern Michigan University, sure of what I wanted and what I would do. But life being as it is, and plans going the way they often do, I didn’t graduate. I dropped out to have a baby, joined the Navy, was medically discharged, and left drifting without tangible purpose. This is at least in part due to my husband’s active duty status, taking us overseas. This is not unusual, as the same manifesto notes that as of 2017, 60 percent of non-traditional students are women. At least I had my Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, a college payment incentive offered for military enlistment after the 9/11 attacks, and since my life became more stable in my late 20s and early 30s, the time seemed right: I enrolled at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.
As a disabled veteran and mother of a teenager, I knew some of the challenges awaiting me after admission. Being significantly older than my peers and being mistaken for a graduate student or instructor were odd blows to my self-esteem. There were numerous others I’d not considered. But as I sit here three weeks from graduating at the time of this writing, I’ve realized that I’ve succeeded despite higher education institutions failing to understand the needs of non-traditional students.
The university experience in the United States is designed to pipeline high school graduates through it and into the workplace as fast as possible, even with the reality that financial success is not necessarily waiting at the other end. Our campus is full of eye-catching signs encouraging undergraduate students to finish in four years, encouraging a fifteen-credit course load if you mean to finish within four years, instead of a full-time load of just twelve. Each syllabus reminds us that we should expect three hours of outside class work per week per credit hour. A fifteen-credit schedule alone starts with fifteen hours a week under instruction. If each class sticks to only that three hours per week outside of class, you’ve racked up forty-five hours of homework. Being a full-time student is more than full time. If your only responsibility is class, and you budget your time well, that may just be doable.
As a theatre major, like many other majors, it’s also not unheard of to have to fit in many outside-of-class activities. I study stage management and playwriting, and that requires me to run shows. I am lucky to have instructors who help me find alternate routes to these requirements, but not every department is this accommodating.
Class and homework are not always the only things people are balancing.
In addition to family duties and disability status, I’m an author, which is a demanding job that comes with irregular hours, most of them unpaid. My time is valuable. My work and financial circumstance allow me to put projects on pause, to the frustration of my ambition. But I still find it difficult to keep up with the amount of self-promotion being an author requires. I was asked to choose between my GPA and my income.
My share of the responsibilities of my home life doesn’t stop for my school day, not if we want things like packed lunches and clean underwear. Even with on-campus services like the Student Parents at Mānoa (SPAM), who help to fill in gaps in childcare, there are limitations. Families need fed. Meals need planned. Perpetual chores pile up each and every day, even if you did them the day before. My family is great about sharing chores, but they have school and jobs too. Of course, traditional students often have to deal with this, as a record number of young people currently live in a household with at least one other generation, which only further emphasizes the need for more support.
And commutes! My commute of twenty miles one way is over an hour. By the time I get home, with a mountain of homework or paperwork, those languishing piles of laundry and cat boxes in need of scooping make me want to cry. Plus, between commuting, family care, instruction time, homework, paid and unpaid non-school work, sleep must happen.
As a person living with chronic pain and mental illness, I often find the demands on my time challenging. My mobility is largely unaffected, which is good, since several of the buildings I frequent lack elevators for my second and third floor classes. With chronic pain often comes chronic fatigue, and while I can make it up and down all of those stairs, it takes its toll.
Managing disability and mental health requires appointments. Appointments take time out of home, work, rest, and class since they tend to be during standard business hours. Going to school for me means staying on my medications. Keeping that medication requires monthly appointments. Many classes penalize overall grades — some as much as one-third of a letter grade deduction — for missed instruction time. If you maintain attendance and miss appointments, health issues inevitably arise, requiring more missed class hours. My teenage child also has appointments, which my spouse and I must take turns with so neither of us miss too much work or school.
Most campuses now have disability services, like UH Mānoa’s Kōkua office. For many students, knowing what accommodations to ask for is daunting. What help can they offer for missed meds and bad traffic? Even if you know what to ask for, it needs to be documented by a qualifying medical professional, which is more outside-of-class time, and the hours per week are reaching untenable.
Universities could take great steps, including encouraging communication with instructors or eliminating graded attendance, in order to address some of these issues. Integrate more one-stop offices to help non-traditional students navigate enrollment and registration. Place non-traditional students on your student governments, boards of regents, and other organizations empowered to enact policy change. Create liaison positions for non-traditional students to direct their needs. Even small things, like eliminating assignments that are little more than busywork, can be an amazing reprieve.
Like I said, I’m in the final days. I would have to try to fail at this point, and even then it may not be enough to undo what I’ve accomplished. At the end of the term, many non-traditional and later-in-life students will graduate, but our successes are in spite of these circumstances. So, I guess that toilet is going to need to wait a few more weeks.