Reaching Higher

A Look at the Nontraditional Student Experience
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The term “college student” is often tied to images of 18-year-olds fresh out of high school who are living in the dorms with roommates and eating at the campus dining hall.

But if college campuses are seen only as places for students in their late teens and early 20s, a unique demographic is overlooked: older students.

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, there were over eight million students, ages 25 and older, who enrolled for fall classes at a degree-granting postsecondary institution in 2016.


These older students are known as nontraditional students. Though age is the most typical defining characteristic of this group, other factors can characterize them as well, such as deferring enrollment (not beginning college in the same calendar year as high school graduation), working full time while attending school, having dependents, being a single parent or not having a high school diploma.

The various life experiences that come with age set nontraditional students apart from their younger peers, sometimes making it difficult for them to fit in with the college community.

In a 2011 pilot study conducted by education scholars Chance W. Lewis and Lakia M. Scott, five nontraditional college students over the age of 50 were interviewed and observed in the classroom to determine what the nontraditional student perspective is on the collegiate experience.

Scott, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Baylor University, said the study was part of a research course during her doctoral program.

“During that year, there was a number of nontraditional students in the classroom during the summertime,” she said. “I just saw this as a noticeable trend and I was like, ‘Huh. I wonder if they’re coming because they have work.’”

In the classroom observations, the researchers saw positive relationships between nontraditional students and their professors. These students seemed comfortable asking questions in class and interacting with their professors outside of class.

Scott also noticed these individuals were good students.

“What I really found was that in many ways they’re more diligent than traditional student learners because of the sacrifices that must be made in order to go to an evening class or whatnot,” she said.

Findings about traditional student and nontraditional student interactions were more complicated. Some relationships between traditional and nontraditional students were formed. Some traditional students treated the nontraditional students with respect and courtesy toward their opinions.

But other times interactions between the two types of students were observed to be “distant, minimal, and can sometimes be conceived as hostile,” according to the study. It also seemed like traditional students saw their nontraditional peers as more authoritarian.

When it came to their education experience, participants’ thoughts were also a mixed bag. Some participants saw their ability to share their own life experience in the classroom as valuable. One participant felt isolated in the classroom.

Scott said traditional college students can make their nontraditional peers more comfortable in the college setting.

“I think the most important thing is…giving voice to that demographic and allowing them to share their narratives so that everyone can be enriched,” Scott said.

Six nontraditional students recently sat down with the The Daily Universe to talk about what they have experienced as they have worked to complete their education.

Erica Miller

When 40-year-old Erica Miller was an BYU undergraduate studying French and minoring in political science, she had various plans to further her education. She considered a law degree. She was also interested in getting a master’s degree in history; she wanted to study early Christian political philosophy.  

“Learning just filled my soul. And it was just something that was really meaningful to me,” Miller said.

From left: Margaret, Erica, Bill, Jarom and Matt Miller pose for a family picture in their home on Nov. 27, 2018. Erica Miller is a nontraditional student pursuing a graduate degree in special education at BYU. (Ty Mullen)

But when she graduated with her degree in 1999, she had an 18-month-old daughter and another baby on the way. So she spent the next while nurturing her family, doing things like volunteering with the PTA.

Ten years ago, Miller decided she was interested in going back to school, but she couldn’t find a program that was a good fit, so she spent more time experimenting with life. She wrote a health and fitness blog, competed in triathlons and took cooking classes.

She also found she enjoyed teaching exercise classes. She started to work her way into doing graduate work in exercise science, but after a Lupus flare left her on bedrest for months, it didn’t look like exercise science was in the cards.

“I thought, ‘Well maybe I’ll never go back to school,’” Miller said.

In the meantime, she started working as an aide at New Hope Academy, a school that serves children ages 5 to 14 who have mental health and behavioral disorders.

“I was assigned to work with children who had significant emotional and behavioral disorders,” Miller said.  “A lot of them had early childhood trauma…And I just found like a little niche, and I was like, ‘I get this. I can do this.’”

After experimenting with a variety of paths, Miller had finally found her own.

“I found this little place where my skill set matched a void in the community, where there was a place where….I was needed,” she said.

She worked as an aide for five years and began going to conferences. It was then that she decided she wanted to pursue more education.

Miller’s new plan was made, and now she is currently doing post-baccalaureate work at BYU, preparing to apply to the special education master’s program. She is taking six credits this semester.

“I take whatever classes are kind of interesting to me. It was kind of like an experiment to make sure that my brain still worked,” Miller quipped.

Though she never felt like she needed to make money to provide for her family, or never sought out what she called the “praise” of a specific job, Miller did feel like education would help her do more with her life.

“I wanted to have my life make a difference and…be more than–this sounds terrible–to be more than mom. Because a mom is an amazing thing and I’m changing the world through my kids, but there’s more to my story than that,” Miller said. “And I’ve always known that there was more to my story than just parenting. So I wanted to create opportunities for myself to allow myself to be more, to influence more lives, to help more people.”

As Miller made her way back to school, it took a while for some of her friends to understand why she would want to leave the home and be away from her kids. But Miller focused on the positive things that were coming out of her decision.

Jarom Miller, 15, works to make soup for family dinner on Nov. 27, 2018. Since Erica Miller has gone back to school as a nontraditional student at BYU, Jarom and his siblings have had more household responsibilities, like cooking dinner for the family. (Ty Mullen)

Her three children living at home are learning more independence. They have to remember their lunches and their homework, because she can’t bring them things at school during the day if they forget them. The kids are also learning to cook–and they each take a night to make dinner, even if that means there aren’t very many vegetables on the Miller family’s plates or they eat the same meals quite frequently.

Jarom Miller, 15, stirs the soup he made for family dinner on Nov. 27, 2018. Since Erica Miller has gone back to school as a nontraditional student at BYU, Jarom and his siblings have had more household responsibilities, like cooking dinner for the family. (Ty Mullen)

This has been especially positive for Miller’s 18-year-old son, Matt, who is preparing to study music at BYU-Idaho. He now has an arsenal of recipes he can cook.

Miller’s husband, Bill, has also been supportive. He manages the kids on Saturday mornings so Miller can have the time she needs to study–and she works on a strict early-bird schedule.

“Early mornings and Saturday mornings are my study periods where I get up at five every morning to do my schoolwork,” she said. “Even on Saturdays, because it’s the quietest time in my home and I need a quiet place and a quiet time.”

Miller also continues to work at New Hope Academy, where her employers have been flexible with her work schedule to accommodate her classes. She’s stacked them all on one day so she can still fulfill work duties.

But going back to school hasn’t been easy, either. Miller said she’s noticed a decrease in her patience. She’s also found it hard to juggle everything, especially her kids’ extracurricular activities and making sure they get where they need to be.

“That’s been hard for me to ask for help and ask people to be willing to just take that responsibility on when I can’t help with it,” Miller said. “I have a wonderful neighbor who takes my son home from school every day. He’s at a charter school that’s far enough away that he can’t walk himself home. That was hard for me. And it was like emotionally sad to not be able to do that and not to be able to reciprocate.”

Another struggle Miller faces is getting into her classes. Because she isn’t enrolled in a specific program, she has to ask professors if she can take their courses. Miller said professors have pointed out prerequisites she hasn’t taken and asked her to explain her qualifications and why she thinks she’ll succeed. The process, she said, has been both empowering and humbling.

“Empowering because I do succeed and it’s not a problem for me to succeed. Humbling because I have to keep asking and because I have to answer those questions every time,” she said.

In class, Miller said sometimes she has to suppress a laugh when she notices immaturity in her younger classmates. She finds it endearing when professors try to keep up to pop culture to try to connect with their students. She also recognizes her perspectives are different because of her age and feels like they are valued in the classroom.

Miller said that for anyone considering going back to school, it’s important to prepare beforehand.

“Get your ducks in a row as much as you can before you start,” she said. This includes being aware of what sacrifices need to be made, but also appreciating the gift of learning.

From left: Margaret, Jarom, Matt, Bill, and Erica Miller enjoy soup for family dinner on Nov. 27, 2018. The Millers’ family dynamic has changed since Erica Miller went back to school at BYU as a nontraditional student. (Ty Mullen)

“There are times when I go onto campus where I literally tear up just a little bit because it’s such a blessing to be on campus and to have an opportunity to keep learning,” Miller said. “And I didn’t get that as a 20-year-old. And I get it now. And it’s humbling. And it’s a privilege.”

Video: A Day in the Life

Lindsey Slabaugh

Lindsey Slabaugh, 37, is a single mom and student in the dental hygiene program at Carrington College in Boise, Idaho. But how she ended up in dental hygiene is rather serendipitous.

Slabaugh starting attending Boise State after graduating high school. After a few semesters, she met her husband and they moved to Seattle, Washington. They had their first daughter–and all of these changes put Slabaugh’s education on hold.

Lindsey Slabaugh, pictured center in a white vest, poses for a picture with the rest of her dental hygiene class at Carrington College in Boise, Idaho on Oct. 10, 2018. (Lindsey Slabaugh)

“When my daughter was a little bit older, I wanted to stay home with her for a few years because I feel like that’s vital to a child’s development, to have mom home,” Slabaugh said. “When I felt like she was old enough to attend preschool, then I started taking some more undergraduate classes in Seattle.”

Slabaugh had always been interested in medicine, but wasn’t quite sure what career she wanted to pursue. She had started her education intending to go to medical school.

“After I started my family, I kind of thought, ‘Well, that’s a little bit too much school,’” she said.

Slabaugh and her husband decided to move back to Idaho to be closer to family. By then she was considering dental hygiene school, but wasn’t interested in the one program in her area. Slabaugh said the school didn’t have the greatest reputation at the time.

Not wanting to waste time or money, Slabaugh decided to look into volunteering for the Red Cross. When she found out they had employment opportunities, she took a job and worked for the Red Cross for eight years.

“It was totally rewarding. I totally loved the job,” she said. “The people were amazing. I met some of the best people in the community that you could possibly meet, people that give of themselves with nothing in return.”

But, Slabaugh said, she felt like she had no opportunities for growth in her phlebotomy job. She decided to go back to school and finish her degree, later graduating in health science with a minor in psychology from Boise State.

Slabaugh didn’t stop there. She said she wanted specialized training. She decided to apply to physician assistant school, but got rejected.

Then dental hygiene began nagging at her thoughts again.

One day, as Slabaugh was chatting online with a recruiter from Yale University about the school’s physician assistant program, she decided to look into dental hygiene again because of her daughter Hailey, who is a junior in high school. She didn’t want to miss the last year and a half of her daughter’s life before adulthood.

She called Carrington College and asked if they had an orientation anytime soon. It turned out they did–later that same day. Slabaugh decided to go.

“Literally they had me apply that day,” Slabaugh said of this “weird” experience. “It was like a whirlwind because I was just considering it that morning.”

A month later, Slabaugh was accepted to the program. She said she loves it and will graduate in 2019.

“I can see myself being happy doing it,” she said. Plus, Slabaugh added, dental hygiene is a “happier” career with better hours, and she won’t have to be on call like she would have been if she had become a physician assistant.

From left: Dental hygiene student Lindsey Slabaugh and her classmate Jeanette Roice work on “Dexter” the dummy at Carrington College in Boise, Idaho. (Lindsey Slabaugh)

But Slabaugh still thinks about becoming a physician assistant, calling herself “one of those lifer students.”

Slabaugh has encountered some challenges studying with her younger peers.

“It’s been really hard for me because I’ve kind of been where the girls are in their mindset right now. But that was like 10 years ago,” Slabaugh said. “And I’m more mature now. I don’t mean it rudely, but…I’m just in a different spot.”

Slabaugh said it is difficult socially when she doesn’t go out with her group of peers from school because she misses out on those moments to get closer to everyone. She said since she now has more responsibility as a mother and is more studious, she foregoes the “party” mindset to keep her professional and personal life separate.

“You want to fit in, but at the same time you don’t really care,” she laughed.

The hardest challenge Slabaugh has encountered with continuing her education is balancing money. Because her dental hygiene program is full-time, her school discourages its students from working on top of studying. To cover the cost of her education Slabaugh is currently looking for full-time work.

But Slabaugh said she knows she has a good career ahead of herself once school is through.

From left: Mom and daughter Hailey Slabaugh and Lindsey Slabaugh smile wide for the camera in March 2017. Lindsey Slabaugh said because she has gone back to school she has provided 16-year-old Hailey with a model of what a strong woman can be. (Lindsey Slabaugh)

She said she thinks her determination to obtain goals has created a drive in 16-year-old Hailey to be successful as well.

“I think it sets a good example for what a strong woman can be,” Slabaugh said.

Podcast: Nontraditional at BYU

For the following podcast, The Daily Universe interviewed 42-year-old Autumn Zobrist and 37-year-old Gana Gankhuyag, who are both BYU accounting students, about their experiences going back to school as nontraditional students.

“So when I say I’m going back to school, I’m seeking a career that’s financially lucrative, that’s high-powered, that puts me in places of influence and it’s not my home...I think that there’s a certain amount of question about that...I’m doing something surprising.” Autumn Zobrist

Jeanpierre Van Tonder

At BYU, it’s not abnormal for an undergraduate degree to take more than the standard four years to complete. Going to school for more than eight semesters can be a result of serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or majoring in a program with a hefty amount of credits. Others might need more time for school when they switch majors or take time off for financial reasons.

But what if your undergrad degree took you 20 years to finish?

For Jeanpierre Van Tonder, who started his undergraduate education at BYU in 1999, 20 years is exactly how much time he’ll have spent working toward his degree when he graduates in April 2019.

Jeanpierre Van Tonder, 41, is a nontraditional college student attending BYU. He will graduate in April 2019 after twenty years of working toward his degree. (Jeanpierre Van Tonder)

Van Tonder, a 41-year-old Latin American studies major, husband and father of three, was born in South Africa and raised between France and South Africa. He first came to BYU after his mission, at the end of 1998. It was his first time in the United States.

“It felt like I was in a movie set all the time because everything you see in the movies was real,” he said.

Adjusting to a new place and post-mission life was a challenge, but Van Tonder jumped into BYU with both feet, beginning a linguistics major and discovering a love for BYU ballroom. He decided to double major in ballroom dance and travel and tourism with a minor in physical education.

“That’s what I love about schooling here,” he said. “You actually can really go into something you enjoy. It’s just a very different educational system in France, at least.”

In the meantime, Van Tonder also lived in foreign language housing. (He’s a native French and English speaker, speaks Afrikaans, German, Spanish, understands Italian, Portuguese and Dutch and has basic skills in Arabic, ASL and Mandarin.)

But Van Tonder’s grades were slipping and he was struggling with his faith. He finally made it into the backup ballroom dance team in January 2000, but received some “devastating” news a month later.

“Because I was struggling with my faith I was not living in accordance with the Honor Code,” he said. “And in the end of February of 2000, I was called into the Honor Code Office and I was kicked out of BYU.”

Van Tonder said being asked to leave BYU didn’t help his faith issues. He would eventually leave the Church in 2002.

“I did have a testimony. So that was still there and so I was just trying to figure out how to work things out,” Van Tonder said.

At this time Van Tonder served in the French Army as a non-commissioned officer. He earned the equivalent of an associate’s degree during his service. Because of his language skills, his objective was to work in embassies. But because he identified as a Latter-day Saint, it was hard to get clearance–according to Van Tonder, the Church was seen as a cult.

He began working in tourism in Normandy. Soon he went to Florida for work. He decided to stay in the U.S. for a while, and ended up back in Utah. He visited BYU campus a few times and found local Church leaders that were willing to work with him to help him come back to church. Van Tonder said their love made all the difference.

Van Tonder was in the U.S. under the VISA waiver program, which allows people from other countries to travel to the United States for a specific purpose for 90 days without needing a VISA. At the end of those 90 days, Van Tonder was planning on returning to France before coming back to the U.S. to further pursue his education.

But when he tried to come back to the U.S., he was stopped at the border. His belongings were searched and he was interrogated. Van Tonder said he was treated like a criminal.

“After those four hours, I found out that the reason they weren’t letting me in was because I had overstayed the VISA waiver program–by 12 hours,” he said. Again he was devastated.

Van Tonder returned to France in a downward spiral with his mental health and spirituality. A Church leader in Utah continued to reach out to him each week, helping him get back to the Church. 

But one day at church, he was asked to translate for a young woman visiting from the U.S. They eventually began dating (mostly over Skype because she had to return to the U.S.) and were engaged later that year, on December 31, 2011.

Van Tonder applied to UVU and was accepted, but was unable to attend because his student VISA was denied.

In the meantime he got married in August 2012 and lived in France. Van Tonder said he was still searching for a way to come back to the U.S. and get his education.

“Having a bachelor’s just opens more doors to different jobs and things like that,” he said. “People just look at you differently as well when you’ve been through college.”

Finally the Van Tonder family was able to move to the U.S. in March 2016. By this time they had a six-week-old baby, a two-year-old, and just eight suitcases for the four of them. 

Van Tonder applied once more to BYU and was accepted. He started again in January 2017, this time as a family life major with an emphasis in human development. But there were more curveballs to come.

Soon Van Tonder was laid off from his job. His wife was also going through some health challenges.

“So at the end of that I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t know if I can go to school anymore. Because it’s too much. And I’m working full time. And taking care of my family…and I’m in school full time,’” he said.

Van Tonder met with an advisor, and he realized it didn’t matter what major he chose–he just needed a degree. It was then he decided to major in Latin American studies. Because he had tested out of Spanish many years ago, the program wouldn’t take long.

But Van Tonder doesn’t just have his eyes on the finish line–he’s also heavily involved on campus.

“It’s hard to get involved. Because you have family, because you have responsibilities,” he said. “But I was like, ‘You know what? I feel like I’m on campus and excited to be here. It’s a great campus. There’s great opportunities. Let’s just go full on.’”

“Full on” may be an understatement. Van Tonder currently serves as the president of the BYU Nontraditional Student Association, an organization that helps create a community of nontraditional students on campus. He’s on the Student Advisory Council. He’s also looking forward to participating in Model Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. in 2019.  

Van Tonder also strives to be a part of his classes.

“I can put myself in a corner and just be there and be the old guy,” he said. “But I’m not. I talk. I participate.”

Van Tonder sometimes notices a difference between himself and his peers because of his larger amount of life experience. But he works to be a part of their community.

“I’m the one in classes that will organize study groups,” he said, describing himself as a very social person.

What’s next for Van Tonder? He said he is looking into working with the U.S. Foreign Service and has been approached by government organizations because of his military experience and language skills. He is applying for American citizenship in December 2018, which will allow him to work for the U.S. government.

For now, Van Tonder continues to work through school, showing his kids that education is important to him and trusting that God has a hand in his life.

“It’s been a journey to get back here. I feel blessed to be here,” he said.  

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