Sociological Perspectives on the Nontraditional Student

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Sociological Perspectives

Within a collage population, many of those students are considered nontraditional.  They are usually older than traditional student, fresh out of high school.  Nontraditional students may have responsibilities like households to care for, and they carry with them previous life experience from past careers.  Starting over from scratch may risk upending the stability they have created for themselves.  How do they choose which type of college to attend?  By examining conflict, functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and feminist sociological perspectives, insight may be had on the mechanism of choosing the college a nontraditional student may attend.

Conflict perspective asks the question, “who wins and at who’s expense?”  Karl Marx viewed conflict as the major force that drives social change, specifically class conflict as the struggle over resources by exploited and exploiting classes.  Marx may have viewed the question of how nontraditional students choose what type of college to attend because of the “boundless thirst” for capitalist profit.  Does a nontraditional student choose a technical school to quickly learn a trade, selling the fruits of their labor to the bourgeoisie?  Do they attempt to change their trajectory by attending a prestigious ivy league university, straining toward changing their social class?  Are they really just unknowing victims of the system the bourgeoisie installed?

Functionalism asks, “how does interconnected and interdependent parts of a system contribute to order and stability?”  How does the nontraditional student act as a function of social order?  The choice to become a better candidate for a job and have more opportunity may come with a price.  Perhaps the nontraditional student’s family has to compromise by giving up opportunities that may have benefited the family economically or emotionally.  If the nontraditional student had worked harder in their primary field perhaps they could have advanced instead of starting from scratch.  Nontraditional students are often awarded federal grants for continuing education while traditional student’s parents pay out-of-pocket.  Are nontraditional students an economic drain on the federal government?  Sociologist Robert K. Merton would say that these functions (nontraditional student) and dysfunctions (family’s compromises) can be both anticipated or unanticipated.

Symbolic interactionalism asks the question, “how does our understanding impact the way we act?”  If everything is a symbol and every symbol has meaning, how does this effect the social order?  The nontraditional student’s self-awareness may have led them to ask themselves, “how do others see me?” and react by continuing their education.  The negotiated order may imply that they attend a less expensive technical school that take less time to complete but they may challenge this by negotiating new expectations and attend a school with higher prestige.  Whether the student chooses a trade school, community college, or university, a symbol of their effort will be reflected differently in their status.  Does self-awareness influence the nontraditional student’s choice about what type of college to attend based on how others may see them afterward?  Here, there the student, the college, the outcome itself, and how the student sees themselves throughout, are all symbols.

The feminist perspective asks, “to what extent are gender inequalities reflected in human interaction?”  Are the decisions of a single mother different when picking what type of college to attend different than a single father?  Are women expected to enroll in a technical school and if they do, will they be encouraged to complete their degree or certification?  Will a male who dreams of helping people choose a college with a renowned nursing degree?  Does a woman attend a college with a male led administration?  The feminist perspective examines the unequal distribution of power.

The nontraditional student may make choices about how to continue their education based on how they are influenced in society.  Their social class may influence where they fit in society and what types of opportunities are available to them. There may be unintended consequences to their decision and others may pay for their gain (or vice versa).  The way the nontraditional sees themselves and their place in society may influence which type of institution to attend.  Gender inequalities may influence what type of program to enroll in and if they achieve completion.  By examining the sociological frameworks around each student’s choices, we can understand how they function in the society they are in.

College During a Pandemic

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I finished out the spring semester online. We started in the classroom and made the transition after spring break. I was supposed to go to Guatemala on a service immersion trip but they closed their borders to us at the last minute so we were redirected (through some slick maneuvering by campus ministry) to El Salvador. This turned out to be more of an immersion trip where we stayed with a host family in a rural community for part of the trip and learned about the history and culture of El Salvador the rest of the time. While we were down there the president of El Salvador closed their borders as well but we were able to go back home. I’ll write about the trip in itself soon.

It was disorienting watching the systems that we take for granted break down around us. There was so much uncertainty. We were far from home, surrounded by people we didn’t know well, feeling this slow moving tidal wave moving toward us together. I’m so grateful that I was able to begin this pandemic this way. We were able to see our privileged laid bare before us in a way that made the hardships of the lock-down seem trivial in comparison. And they are trivial.

I was able to take the summer off. My scholarships doesn’t cover summer classes and I couldn’t see paying out of pocket when both my husband and I are laid off. We worked in the same restaurant together. For the first time in my adult life I have been able to work on myself… get some things done that I’ve been meaning to do. I’ve been practicing a lot of much needed self-care.

I went to unv.org and have been accepted to volunteer for a couple jobs. One is crowd mapping in Tanzania to combat female genital mutaliation. The other is a pretty big deal for me: I will be leading a team of 20-30 volunteers on the “news” team of SODEIT (Social Development International). I will be working about 30 hours a week for the next couple months remotely for the organization in Cameroon, Africa. I’ve never done anything like this before (besides restaurant management but it’s not the same) so I’m nervous but very excited! I finally get to put my studies into practice in the direction I would like my career to go.

I’m nervous about attending school in the fall. I’m not sure what that will look like. I know that every fall everyone gets sick, so how will this virus work on top of that? If I can’t keep myself from getting the “back to school sniffles” how am I supposed to keep from bringing a deadly virus back home to my high risk husband? I am thankful that I attend a Jesuit college and while I am not super religious, they have proven to me that they have our best interests at heart.

On the other hand I’m super excited about my classes. My criminal justice instructor was our faculty “companion” to El Salvador, my African American History instructor is my advisor, and my History of the Modern Middle East instructor is my (much loved and appreciated tough as nails) mentor. I’m also taking Macroeconomics and Intro to Public Policy. So excited. My volunteer work will be ending as the semester begins. I wonder if I’ll go back to work in the Dean’s Office of Arts and Sciences like I did before the pandemic?

What about you? How do you feel about going back to school in the fall?

It’s Been A While…

It really has been a long time since I’ve posted and a lot has happened.  I graduated with my AA and have transferred to a local private Jesuit University.  I’m in the first year of working toward my bachelor’s degree.  I finally decided to go for a dual degree in Peace and International Studies and Public Policy.  I have about another year left.

I love the school that I choose.  They are so supportive.  I’ll write a whole other post about what it’s like attending a Jesuit school.

I am starting to wonder if I should just enter the workforce after my bachelor’s.  I have been in school for four years now and I love it.  Part of me is wearing out… maybe it’s just this semester, I’m not sure.  I thought I was going to go for an MBA so I decided to get all my business prereqs out of the way this semester.  I decided really quickly that it was not for me.  Many of those credits will still apply to my public policy major but I’m still slugging through marketing and microeconomics. While interesting, it’s not like studying history or something that I love (and that comes easily to me).

I am feeling like I’ve finally settled down in a direction that is… me.  I am happy with my classes and think I’m headed down the correct path (if there is such a thing).

I thought back to when I was a kid.  If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you that I wanted to join the Peace Corps.  I didn’t know anything about it but the thought of traveling, helping, learning from people, all that sounded like a good life.  Time well spent.  I don’t really care about money as I do about living the best life possible.  Peace studies may get me there.

I had an epiphany today

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Piggybacking off my last post….

If I am choosing a career in academia, would I not make approximately the same salary no matter what discipline I choose?  What impassioned me to go to school mid-life was the urge to be more cultured (less ignorant).  I didn’t want to die being another American that cant fill in a world map, speak another language or relate to other cultures.

I have always loved history but studying history and being a historian is really two different things.  Anthropology seemed like an interesting path.  It has everything, history, language, science, travel, culture.  It still is interesting to me but also seems…remote.  I think I’m a bit old to be an archeologist, as fun as that sounds.  I wish I had had the passion to pursue that degree in my 20s!  Sociology seemed more useful, especially in today’s political climate.  And they make a hell of a lot more money than a historian or anthropologist (on average).  I could study the earth or life on it, but I always swing back to environmental aspects of that subject, be it geology or biology.  I thought about journalism but need a background in another area to support it.  When I thought about careers in any of these subjects, it’s hard to answer the question everyone inevitably asks, “What will you do with that degree?”

My answer to that can now be academia.  I can teach and do research.  With the time I have, I would like to make an impact.  Protect the environment, change people’s lives.  I could stay in a lab all day, trying to figure out equations when math was never my strong suit or I could make a difference I can feel.  Why not stick with my first love?  Why kill myself (and my GPA) trudging through the next year in Calculous, chemistry, and physics when I’m just as happy learning what I need to know in a broader context.  As I was dozing off reading the biogeochemical textbook suggested to get a deeper background of my research, I thought… why am I doing this?  If I act now I could be taking classes I want to take, not ones I have to power through to get where I want.  And anyway, could I ever teach these subjects? No way!

I started college to become the best version of myself I can be.  When the realization hit me that I was going down a forced path, as interesting as it sounded at the time and that the prerequisites are a burden weighing me down, I hit a wall.  When the second realization hit me that if I changed my fall schedule now to something that suits me better… I felt that the freedom of that weight release me.  Hell, I’m doing this to change the direction of my life.  This is supposed to be fun!  Enriching and liberating!  If I want to take freaking piano lessons or art class with my electives, why not?!

I already know the language of the arts and now have a little bit of a background in science.  Enough that it is relatable to me.  I have always been creative and love the arts.  According to FOCUS tests I’m am first Investigative than Creative.  I was forcing myself to be something I’m not.  I’m not handy with machines and advanced math is such a useless chore (to me).

Human geography is interesting to me.  There are concentrations of environmental, historical-context, and economics that sound right up my alley.  What if I started with a foundation of geography and went to grad school for sociology to put it all into context?  There are similar concentrations for sociology, like globalization, gerontology political, and environment.  Or vice versa?

I had this really silly day-dream walking back to the dorm after lab today.  I had earned my Ph.D. and was volunteering my time to teach a class to middle school kids about social change, community involvement, conservation, and empowerment.  I could speak at community colleges like I first went to.

I emailed the different departments today to take a tour of their facilities.

Goals for older students

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Being around the younger students in the REU program has helped me realize that my path is different than a student who is looking to earn their degree and go out into the world to start their career.  At forty, I have a limited time span on my career.  I don’t think I’ll have the luxury to change paths again if I don’t like the one I’m on.  Afterall, I chose to earn a degree so that I can change the trajectory of my life and hopefully my family’s reality in the process.  Instead of having a mother (grandmother, sister, etc) who was a bartender/server/manager, I want my family and future generations of my family to have a mother (etc) who had an advanced degree and contributed to the world somehow.  My parents owned restaurants so I had higher expectations for myself that I didn’t live up to until now.  I want to set the bar higher.

That being said, what can I do with a degree like that at 50?  I may have another twenty or (sigh) thirty years to use it.  I wonder if I shouldn’t just stay in academia, earning a tenure, and retire.  That way I have a more linear shot of a career to ride out.  There are many benefits, the pay isn’t half bad (really good for some), and there are many different things I can do with that.  I could lead different programs, mentor, travel, do research,

close up of apple on top of books

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serve on boards and committees, teach, work in administration, who knows.

When I look at my future that way, I’m not just a college student.  I’ve already started my career.  I already work at school and will continue to, moving from one position to the next through the connections I make.  I’ll make use of the opportunities that present themselves and there are many.

University life is like being on a little island.  Everything you need is here from living arrangments, meal plans, and rec centers.  It’s really like a little bubble of a universe filled with like-minded people who can point you in the direction of whatever resources one may need.  It’s a sheltered existence that I find myself very comfortable in.

I’m not so sure I would like to go back out into the corporate world, start my own business, or work for the government.  I see the older professors and admire their experience.  They have a comfortable confidence in their stride that I would like to have.  I think that I would fit in nicely one day.  I’m learning a lot from watching them closely and it’s helping me decide what kind of person I would like to be one day.  I think I would have a unique perspective, too, which some students may appreciate.  Afterall, if I can do it, they can too.  I think I have a lot to offer in that regard and may find that a rewarding second chapter of my life.

When I think of my future this way, taking classes becomes less tedious.  I’m silently absorbing the experience I need to one day give back the experience to others.  It’s just what I do.  Academia.  I like the sound of that.