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Nontraditional students pursue college education

November 2, 2007

Years may go by, but the drive for education still stays the same for nontraditional students at UW-River Falls.

College may be seen as an environment solely for 18-22 year-olds, but nontraditional students are making their mark on the UWRF campus.

There is no exact definition for nontraditional students, Alan Tuchtenhagen, the associate vice chancellor for enrollment services, said. The age for nontraditional students varies from 22 to 25 at different universities in the UW System, Tuchtenhagen said. At UWRF it is generally accepted that students 25 and over are considered nontraditional. In the graduate program, being over 30 years of age is generally considered being nontraditional. At UWRF 8 percent of undergraduate students are nontraditional and 5 percent of graduate students are nontraditional, according to a press release from the enrollment services office.

People from all different walks of life are coming back to college to pursue an education.

“I wanted to get my bachelors in some kind of engineering after getting my two year degree,” Shawntel Murphy, senior mechanical engineering and physics major, said. Murphy initially went to college for one semester, but dropped out because she didn’t have any idea of what she really wanted to do with her life. During her time away from college, Murphy worked as an engineer for Ford Motor Company, and she had her son, Dylan.

“There was no way I could do it while he [Dylan] was a baby,” Murphy said. “I came down and looked at the college, and I realized that once my son started kindergarten, I could go back.”

Murphy is now 30 years old and she plans on graduating from UWRF in the next year and a half.

Circumstances like Murphy’s keep students away from college for a time, but there are numerous reasons why students drop out and come back.

“I went to college for a very short time; I failed miserably,” senior geology major Patti Roettger said. “I was not in the right mindset to tackle something like that at the time.”

Right out of high school, responsibility was an issue for Roettger.

“I was a typical 18 or 19 year old; I just wanted to go out with my friends all the time,” Roettger said. “I just wasn’t responsible enough to stick with my classes.”

After dropping out of Lakewood College, now Century College, Roettger started working and eventually got a job at Anderson Windows.

“It paid really well, especially when you’re 18 or 19 years old, but when I got older I realized that it was pretty much a dead end,” Roettger said. “I realized I had to have some further schooling.”

Roettger is now 42 years old and is close to finishing her degree, which has always been a dream.

Some students may have maturity issues when they first enter college and that may cause them to postpone their education, but other issues also cause students to delay going to college.

“I ended up getting married, and we had a family afterward,” Valerie Rolling, a sophomore majoring in broad area English and secondary education, said.” “We just kind of decided to do the career thing instead of school.”

Rolling now has three children. She decided that they are now old enough for her to go back to school and pursue her education. Rolling spent one semester at UW-Whitewater right after she graduated high school, and she completed one year at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Life just seemed to get in the way for Rolling, but she is now back at school working toward a degree.

“I always wanted to get my four year degree, and this time I’m going to,” Rolling said.

Nontraditional students are also coming into college after stints in the military.

“Military-wise, we have right around 160 students,” Steve Holmes, a representative for the UWRF veterans office, said.

The veteran’s office helps military members fill out their GI bill paperwork in order to receive financial aid from the military that they can use for education purposes.

“Depending on your amount of active duty time [the GI bill] pays a monthly stipend and for Wisconsin residents the state actually pays for their tuition,” Holmes said.

The GI bill is a help to military veterans, and it would be a mistake to not take advantage of it, Holmes said.

“I get about $1,100 a month from the GI bill,” Lee Massey, a former army member and UWRF junior majoring in applied physics and mechanical engineering, said.

Massey was a member of the Army from 1996 to 2000 and from 2000 to 2004 he was a member of the Army National Guard. In 1998, Massey was shipped overseas, and he spent time in Bahrain and Kuwait as a patriot missile operator and worked as a systems maintainer. As a systems maintainer, Massey worked with radars and launched guidance computer systems. During his time in the military, Massey found out that he has an interest in engineering, so after serving in the Army he came back to college in his hometown of River Falls to pursue a college education. The Army has been helpful to Massey in terms of financial aid, but he has to do a juggling act with many different aspects of his life.

“ I have two [children], and their ages are four and almost two,” Massey said. “Realizing that you don’t get homework done at home is an important thing. That’s why I come here [campus] at 6 a.m. to get my homework done before class.”

Along with his two children, Massey also has 18 credits and a job at 3M.

Nontraditional students with different backgrounds are finding ways to go to college and pursue higher education. Sometimes work, children, maturity issues or serving in the military may defer the dream of a college education for a time, but these issues haven’t stopped some from obtaining a college degree.