Non-Traditional Students: Developing Inspirational Leaders

Fall is an intense time.  I think it’s like that for nearly everyone I know.  Kids are back in school.  We kick off the holiday season with Halloween, followed almost overnight by Thanksgiving and then the December holidays (How very PC of me to not specify which, huh?).  We’re trying to cram as much into the final warmer days of the year, before the dark days of winter officially descend upon us.

In the business world, third and fourth quarter earnings (for those on a calendar year) kick things into high gear.  We’re planning and budgeting for the upcoming year.  Can’t forget about performance reviews and year-end employee engagement efforts!  It’s a busy time, for sure.

As a college professor, I primarily teach “non-traditional” adult learners.  What makes them non-traditional?  Well, most are working adults, having spent at least a few years in the working world, if not a decade or more.  Many have married, and some have kids of their own.  They bring to the learning environment a wealth of experiences and perspectives that many of my “traditional” professorial colleagues could only dream to have in their classrooms.  Gone is some of the naiveté of their early 20s, replaced by a realism (bordering at times on cynicism) that is both provocative and, quite honestly, exciting to me as an educator.  They are willing and able to challenge the status quo, with some backing to their critiques based on real-world practice.

For these students, all year is an intense time.  They never seem to get a break, between work, families, social lives, and their own schoolwork.  And it’s not that they don’t complain…oh, from time to time, they certainly do.  But at the end of it all, more often than not, they simply buckle down and get it all done.  The manage the juggling, balancing act of being a non-traditional adult learner.  It’s impressive really…..

I myself have seen learning from both sides of the fence.  My undergraduate work, however, also veered from the traditional college experience.  At Colorado College, intensity was the norm.  With each course, a semester’s worth of material and contact hours was crammed into a brief 3 1/2-week block.  Each academic year, students normally complete 8 such blocks, opportunities to fully dive into a particular subject and produce on very short notice.  There’s little opportunity for procrastination, to be sure.  But, in my opinion, it’s a wonderful model of education, and I thoroughly thrived in it.

Alas, I eventually had to leave the mountain views of Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods for the real world.  And when I did return to school, it was as a full-time working professional and a part-time graduate student.  Call me a glutton for punishment, but that’s a life I have continued for much of my working life.  Through a Master’s degree, nearly a second, and ultimately a doctoral program, I’ve experienced the hardships and sacrifices of balancing work and school, and for fun, I threw in two marriages and two kids to boot!

So, why do I say all this?  It’s not because I can merely relate to the students I’m teaching and the real-life challenges they face every day in my courses.  Rather, it’s because they do so with true grace and poise, constantly producing high quality work in spite of the challenges.  They blend their various lives into fascinating discussions, relevant examples, and real-time, applied learning in a way that would impress the most stodgy of traditional academicians.

So, next time you discover a co-worker, neighbor, or family member who is pursuing an educational degree (undergraduate or graduate level), take a few minutes to marvel first at how they do manage to balance it all.  But also take a moment to admire their perseverance and determination to grit it out, relying on self-determination and self-direction to reach their goals.  For it is that drive that will take your company, your community, and this country forward.  These are the leaders we need for our futures.  It’s pretty impressive, if you ask me.

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