College Through the Ages
Profiles of the unconventional student
By: Emma Chekroun
At the start of the semester—in between the jumble of arranging and rearranging schedules, buying books, and rushing to find your next class —you may have noticed that a few students looked a little older and made you pause to think“Is that professor supposed sitting with the students?” or “Did someone’s parent come to lecture?”
Chances are, you probably thought neither of those things because, on a campus of 31,000at the University of Minnesota, you have likely already encountered an older student in at least one class. But what you might not have noticed was just how similar they were to the freshmen in your class who just started college and at the same time how much they share in common with the professor who has been teaching the class for around 20 years.
Roque Sinclair, Jane Doe*, and Wendy Albee have all decided to finish their pursuit of higher education here at the University of Minnesota, and their struggles and stories are unsurprisingly common.
Sinclair is 50 and currently pursuing a studies in cinema and media culture major. He’s married and apart from his studies, works with finances at the University, disk jockeys at RadioK, working on a book, has his own blog; if that weren’t all enough, he is also a member of the indie rock band, Control Planes. His history before coming to the University of Minnesota is, to put it simply,complicated.
Q: So what were you doing before you decided to come to the University of Minnesota?
A: Uhh, living. I was in the Marines, I went into the first gulf war, I’m a veteran. I’m a huge mama’s boy--I’ll give you that right now--so when I got out, it was hard for me to pursue [my] passion because I really didn’t know what I wanted. I went and got an accounting certificate from a for-profit college, which I hate. It paid the bills, but it never really made me happy.
Right now, I am actually like you or anybody else that is a first-year student. I have no idea what this college shit is about. I don’t. I never went to a college before. The little [accounting] certificate college, that was not a college. I’m kind of like a fish out of water. I have to do liberal education and I didn’t even know what that was.
I had a parent that never really stressed what to do or how to start college. And then, all of a sudden, I went to the Marines, I dropped out, I worked for a long period of time, and then all of a sudden, I want to learn a discipline, and I want to learn a discipline that I want—not that my parents or anybody else wants. That’s basically what I am doing now, I’m kind of a newbie like everybody else is, I just don’t look it.
Q: What has been a benefit of being an older, or non-traditional student?
A: I have so much background. When blues musicians play blues music they say, ‘You can’t play the blues until you live the blues.’ When I was in writing, doing writing class, I had this wealth of ‘stuff’ I already knew about—I already knew what to write. What’s even better is because I had experience already, some of the people in class didn’t know what to write so I would start throwing stuff out, and help them out.
Doe attended college at St. Cloud State after graduating from high school then transferred to the University of Minnesota, but she took a four-year break after struggling to fulfill her language requirement.
After having to take medical leave for depression and anxiety from her previous job in the healthcare field—a field ridden with “burnout” as Doe described it—she returned to the University of Minnesota to take the one class she had left for her degree. In the winter of 2018, Doe graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in communication studies at the age of 28. She is also married with a young daughter and now pursues her passion of helping other students through organizing conferences for a continuing education department.
Q: Is there anyways you’ve tried to avoid burnout? Given your prior experience.
A: My job was the worst case scenario for burnout, there was no way to advance, I wasn’t learning anything new for a year and a half in my position. Everyone’s situation is so different; there are so many ways you can live a fulfilling life that doesn't have anything to do with your job, maybe focusing on those other things instead of your job 100 percent of the time. There is probably advice out there that’s better than anything that I can give. But go see a therapist if you are in that worst case burnout-so-bad-you-are-suicidal scenario.
A high school graduate at the age of 16 in the early 1980s, Wendy Albee attended around seven colleges before she joined the Air Force Reserves in 1989 and switching to active duty in 2007. After retiring from the Air Force in 2017, she returned to the University of Minnesota to pursue a degree in psychology with a minor in horticulture.
It was not until Albee returned to the University of Minnesota, and nearly failed out, that she was diagnosed with ADHD through Boynton Health Service and was able to be prescribed a medication, which to her has been life-changing. Albee is 53 and has a son, daughter, and stepson all between the ages of 21 to 30.
Q:So you graduated early at 16?
A:I did. I was very ambitious; I wanted to conquer the world, but I tried college, and it was kind of a different time. It was kind of a confusing time. I was undiagnosed ADHD, and it made it very hard.
Q: What sparked you to say, after you retired, I’m gonna try again and go to the University of Minnesota?
A: I always wanted to go to college and finish something. It’s finally my time, I raised a family, I was just limited by ADHD, I couldn’t focus. I didn’t want to hang it up yet.
Q: Do you have any wisdom you wish you could impart on those struggling in college?
A: If college is your thing, go for it and finish. If you don’t know what you want to do, go for a trade school or work first because the debt now for school is crazy. My daughter said they really pushed bookwork and not so much the trade school, you look at people like me being so ADHD, college wasn’t a good choice for me back then. People learn different, they don’t talk enough about the trades. If you aren’t a book person, you have to look at your options. You have to be way more careful.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when you have your degree?
A: I’m going to have to figure that out.
Aren’t we all?
*Interviewee wished to be left anonymous, a pseudonym was used in place.