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The Non-Traditional Student ” You”re Not Alone
Education 13 years ago No Comments

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contributed by Cyndi Verenski [ASID, IIDA & NEWH student member / freelance career change expert / aspiring interior designer] 


EDITOR’S NOTE: When we gave birth to PLiNTH & CHiNTZ, we had an idea of who our audience would be: 16- to 26-year-olds seeking to carve their niche in the nontradstud.gifinterior design world. We are delighted to admit that we were dead wrong. Besides established professionals, design groupies, and industry members, “non-traditional students” have emerged as loyal readers. With the hope of assuaging fears and easing minds, one such person fitting that description volunteered to share her feelings about her recent status as an NTS. We welcomed her advice. Because nobody wants to walk alone.


I was expecting to be the oldest student in my classes, but when I enrolled in the interior design program at The Illinois Institute of Art-Schaumburg, to my overwhelming relief I found myself surrounded with students just like me.

Never Say Never

The first time I earned a Bachelor’s degree, I spotted several older students not only marching about campus, but also parked next to me in class. I quickly learned that these students were referred to as “non-traditional students”: that is, those in their mid-twenties or above either entering college for the first time in their lives or re-entering college for a variety of reasons.

Possessed by the unavoidable ignorance of youth, I remember thinking, “how awkward this must be for them”. I often wondered what had happened in these peoples’ lives that landed them back in school. Especially, this school. And it was not as if they were earning advanced degrees, as the college did not yet offer them. So why on earth would they want to be here”

Naïve to the “real world” and the curve balls that life will inevitably throw one’s direction, I hoped that this would never happen to me.

Well, eleven years later, it did.

High Anxiety

After almost seven years in the promotional products industry and several attempts to start my career in theatre – the subject of my first educational track – I found myself unhappy with either situation and longed to find my true calling. My plan of action: go back to school and pursue a career in interior design.

So at 29-years-old I found myself returning to academia. Among many other fears, I agonized about being surrounded by students much younger than me – teenagers who just graduated high school and were looking forward to getting out from under their parents’ watchful gaze.

I kept thinking to myself: “This is going to be a nightmare! How is this even going to work” I will be the oldest person in my classes, making references only the professor and I will understand. How am I going to be able to relate to my ‘peers’” They’ll consider me old. Is everyone going to think I’m weird“” In short, dread gripped me.

Unfounded Fears

In the first class of the first day of the first quarter, I was most pleasantly surprised with the demographic. My second class that day was similar, only there were even more of us “old fogies” because it took place during evening hours. As students tentatively introduced themselves, relief washed over me, and I started to relax about my situation. I was surrounded by students just like me: people already attending high school reunions and pursuing new careers, reinventing their lives.

These NTS’s came from all walks of life. One student had moved from California with his wife because the sister school in California didn’t offer the program he desired. Another spent years at community college trying to find himself. One, in particular, related to my story the most. He had gone through several lay-offs within the airline industry. After too many years in a prairie dog society – a.k.a. a sea of office cubicles – he was driven to escape and forge a new life. “Hallelujah,” I silently shouted, “At least I know that I’ll enjoy these two classes.”

All Together Now

However, these courses had merely been the fundamentals, not the core subjects that would be occupying the majority of my time. Luckily, the confidence that I gained from meeting these “old” people straight away lessened my anxiety, and as I began to come across others in the design program, my worries completely evaporated.

Present were many women – both my age and older – who were also pursuing a better life, and many of them became my friends. One, a mother of two, commuted over 120 miles a day to follow her dream. Another, a mother of three, both worked full-time and attended school full-time. Where she found the energy, I will never know.

As two-and-a-half years passed, I met more and more people who, for one reason or another, had bravely left their comfort zones and were hot on the trail of a new career just as I was. Naturally, the younger students formed friendships with others their age, and I found it easier to associate with and befriend the classmates born closer to my birth year. Yet, irregardless of what year we happened to be born, the majority of us had compatible values, work ethics, and personalities.


The Moral Of The Story

In the end, it didn’t matter whether I could actually relate to the 18-year-olds or not. We were all striving for a common goal, and our shared experiences united us. Some of us formed bonds to help each other merely get through a single class, but many of us formed bonds that will last a lifetime. Whether young or old(er), the memory of each of them will stay with me for some time to come.

The lesson I learned” Changing careers – or attending art school – is no easy task no matter where you are in life, and ultimately the quantity of candles on your birthday cake doesn’t count. What does matter is how open you are – open to new experiences, ready for unknown challenges, and accepting of others because of their core character rather than the number of days they’ve been on Earth.

What an uplifting feeling to know that I wasn’t alone after all.