Non-traditional students bring life experience to SNU

Nicole Larsen, Reporter

“It’s the books I’ve read, the friendships I have had, the relationships that have come and gone, the jobs, the heartaches. Life experience, if you are open to it, makes for a richer human being. So, when assignments come your way, you have this wealth of information that you have chewed on and digested and it has become a part of you.”

Tofer Wade, teaching assistant at Sierra Nevada University and author of the book “Pour Choices,” graduated from the university’s MFA program in creative writing last year, marking his twelfth year in school. As a lifelong learner and a non-traditional student, he says the journey of his personal and academic life has made him a richer human being and a formidable student.

According to the National Center for Education, more than 47% of students entering college are 25 or older. A non-traditional student is someone who meets one of the following seven criteria: delayed enrollment into postsecondary education; attends college part-time; works full time; is financially independent for financial aid purposes; has dependents other than a spouse; is a single parent; or does not have a high school diploma.

Although traditional students far outnumber non-traditional students at SNU, several staff and students who walk the campus embody what it means to be a lifelong learner.

Senior Melissa Cox, who is majoring in English, wanted to be a news anchor when she grew up. However, she pursued her degree in cosmetology and became a hair stylist. Like many other small business owners, she had to close her salon due to COVID.

“I had a great career as an independent hairstylist making really good money. I didn’t think I would ever change careers. Getting a degree was more of a personal goal. I have been going to school for the past 20 years. It’s just taking me a very long time,” Cox said.

As a single mother, Cox plans on using her degree to travel write and support her son. Like Wade, she sees continuing education as a place to further enrich her life, becoming a more holistic version of who she is as a person. Cox also sees benefits of being an older, non-traditional student.

“I don’t have FOMO [fear of missing out.] I know what I want and know how to manage my time to get it,” Cox said.

According to Study Breaks, nearly 20-50% of college students enter with an undecided major. A startling 75% change their majors at least once in their academic career. It raises the question of whether waiting to enter college might be a better path.

SNU President Robert Valli was 43 when he went back to college to pursue a PhD in engineering, which would complete his trifecta of degrees in the liberal arts, entrepreneurship, and science. He worked in academia in both faculty and administration, and parlayed that experience to become SNU’s president. Oddly enough, it was his daughter Amanda that catapulted him from decades in the business world into a new direction.

“You have all the tracking of success dad, but you are not happy,” he said. “I am going to do it differently; I am going to follow my passions.”

Valli spent the first year of his doctorate program immersed in books, eating, and working out. Like many parents, he felt the sting of leaving his children behind to pursue his studies. However, having a family and a career while continuing his education fueled Valli’s ambitions.

“As a mature student, you have a little level of confidence, you have less distractions, though you could be a mature student with a family. In that vein, you don’t waste as much time because you don’t have as much time to waste when you have a family and a job.” Valli said.

Donna Axton, professor of humanities and music at SNU, empathizes with Valli. In her 40s she returned to school as a newly divorced, single mother, pursuing a master’s degree in psychology and counseling along with a master’s in music. Echoing the sentiment of Wade and Cox, she sees a different level of commitment in non-traditional students.

“You are not going to skip classes to go to a party, you are much more dedicated because you are paying for it. You do value your time more. You value your attention more. I think it is not easy to go back to school when you have your whole life going when you are working and you have kids,” Axton said.

Axton shared how much she appreciates lifelong learners in the classroom for their wisdom, their commitment, and their dedication to learning. Non-traditional students often have more to lose with children and careers at stake. Many, like a unique student in her class who survived the holocaust, have suffered deep losses in life.

“Way back when I started teaching there was a class that was required. It was an introductory class to the arts. I had students that didn’t want to be there. I had this woman that was in her 60s and she had gone through the holocaust. She was not allowed to go to school when she was young. She was not allowed to have an education.

“She got up there and told these kids how they were taking everything for granted and how precious it was to have an education, how precious it was to have the opportunity and the money to do so, and it was stunning to them. They need to hear that sometimes,” Axton shared.

It seems the older a person is and the more life experience they have, the deeper they truly appreciate the time that they have in the classroom.

SNU senior Clayton Coates served in the United States Marines for eight years before returning to school. He was deployed three times overseas. The first was a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the second was a tour in Kajaki, Afghanistan, and the third was the Special Purpose – Marine Air Ground Task Force located in Spain.

“Growing up, I always had a deep feeling pulling me towards the military. My mother and I had moved every four to five years leading up to my high school graduation, so the concept of home was always a mobile one. I knew the military would provide me with the ability to travel, attain less than conventional life experiences, and pay for my college once I was discharged,” Coates said.

Coates will graduate this May with a dual major in journalism and digital arts, with a minor in outdoor adventure leadership. His time in the military and passion for photography led him to the campus nestled in the hills of Lake Tahoe.

“Over the years leading up to my time at SNU, the only college course that I was passionate about wanting to take was photography. I always felt as though I could see the world in a unique way and that photography was the best medium of expressing my views,” Coates said.

He has since taken every photography and video class the school has to offer. Now, he can be full-time photographer, cinematographer, journalist, or any number of occupations that rely on digital arts and reporting. He plans on using his degree to be a travel/adventure blogger.

Pursuing what one is passionate about is a core value at SNU, something the new president and staff champion in students. As an older student, Coates wishes to pass on this drive to others, leading the way for others to pursue their dreams of lifelong learning.

“Take time to reflect and identify where your passions are. Go for a solo hike for a weekend, or a long solo road trip and focus on what makes you happy,” Coates said. “Once you identify what moves or motivates you as a person, then find where you can implement that passion in the professional world.

“The first year or two of college provide an exceptional opportunity for students to dabble in fields where they may have interest. Students may not find their passion until they have been exposed to all that the world has to offer. If something looks interesting, dive in! If it turns out that choice might not be for you, adjust your direction, and dive in again!”