October 16, 2010
Nontraditional path ends in college composure
Kendra Duquesne worried about holding her own in classes among people young enough to be her children, when she thought a few years ago about going back to college.
Those worries are long behind her, as the SUNY Cortland senior — age 44 and a single mother of two children — has discovered she has an advantage in her life experience and joy at this chance for a college degree.
“I find myself framing things in a different way, in class discussions,” said the Homer resident. “Traditional-aged students often have their parents’ perspectives, and part of college is getting them to see through a different lens. They usually like having us in class with them. We like them too — I have made many friends among the younger students.”
Duquesne is president of SUNY Cortland’s Non-Traditional Students’ Organization, a group that encourages networking and support among the roughly 390 students who fit the definition of nontraditional: age 24 or older, or being of any age but having dependent children.
Despite the many nontraditional students who come to campus, only about 10 are active in the club, which has a lounge for older students in Corey Union.
The group is seeking to grow as SUNY Cortland prepares to recognize Non-Traditional Students Week, the week of Nov. 8.
“A lot of students don’t know about us because they come to campus, sometimes from as far away as Syracuse or Binghamton, then go home,” said Malinda Rees, the group’s vice president. “They often schedule classes for just a few days a week, they’re in class all day and that’s it.”
Older students often balance college courses with family and work.
“This is really a family effort because it’s not just me going back to school but them going back to school,” said Rees, a Schenectady native who lives in Cortland with her husband, Douglas, and their three children.
She said a nontraditional student’s family must understand that study for a degree, whether full-time or part-time, is “a short-term sacrifice” with a longer payoff.
Rees received an associate’s degree in human services at Tompkins Cortland Community College, then worked for 10 years for CAPCO Head Start. She said she went back to school for her bachelor’s degree because a two-year degree would not be enough for her to be hired for a management job.
“The market had changed and left me behind,” she said. “I plan to go on for a master’s degree in community health, here at SUNY Cortland. I’m interested in nutrition programs.”
Duquesne grew up in Homer and enrolled at TC3 out of high school, but quit to get married after one semester.
She returned to finish her degree a couple of years ago and received it in August 2009, then enrolled at SUNY Cortland. She hopes to become a parole officer somewhere other than New York state.
“A lot of our stories are similar but there is no one walk of life among us,” Duquesne said.
“Nontrads are incredible,” said Cheryl Hines, the college’s academic advisor and coordinator for nontraditional students. “So many of them want the ‘A’ and we try to tell them it’s not necessary. They manage their time so well because of their circumstances.”
Hines herself was a nontraditional student, studying part time for nine years at SUNY Cortland while she worked in the registrar’s office. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2005, as a single mother, like Duquesne.
“I know what these students go through,” she said.
Both said faculty are glad to have nontraditional students in class, because they are more motivated to do well in school, having sacrificed to be there and having decided late in life to take on this challenge.
They understand why students ages 19 or 20 sometimes miss class or do not try as hard as they could, but they say such students are a minority. Rees said students should work to their potential.
“My daughter Nicolette, my oldest who is a senior at Cortland High School, says she’ll have a higher grade point average than me, but she has an uphill battle,” Rees said. “I have a 3.97 right now. I want to do my absolute best while I’m here. Maybe I won’t get an A every time but it won’t be because I didn’t try my best.”
Hines and Duquesne said faculty support them in every way.
“They do so much for us, and nontraditional students can’t get away with anything, they always know who we are,” Duquesne said, laughing.
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