Campus challenges leave non-traditional students ‘feeling like freshmen’

By Francois Gatimu

After seven months of defense contracting for the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan, Benjamin Dado decided to return to school a few years ago. It wasn’t long before he found himself grappling with the challenges of being a non-traditional student.  

The 28-year-old, a senior from Chicago studying political science, decided to drop out in 2014 after one semester to re-enlist in the military.

“It was mainly the culture shock with the age gap that led me to leave … to go back to war,” Dado said.


Dado is a part of the 25 percent of the undergraduate population made up of non-traditional students.

Made up of students who are typically older than 25 and financially independent, non-traditional students can face unique challenges, including being a single parents, going through divorces, age disparities between their classmates and more.

Dado said he opted to once again face those challenges in 2015 because he found many jobs he wanted to apply for within the military required a bachelor’s degree.

“With how the military is right now, if you don’t have any sort of degree you’re pretty much in a dead-end job,” Dado said.

He said this time around, he came prepared to be one of the oldest students in many of his classes.

“I knew the age gap would pose a different experience for me,” Dado said. “It was kind of awkward dealing with young students — what they have read in books or seen online, I was there for some of these events.”

Some non-traditional students enroll at the university in the hopes of making their lives easier down the road.


One of these is 25-year-old Patrick Johnson, a freshman from Carbondale studying industrial management and applied engineering.

For the past decade, Johnson has worked as an electrician for his father’s business. He originally came to the university in 2015 but left after one semester when he ran out of money to pay his tuition.

Now, two years later, he’s back, going to classes part time while still working with his father.  

“I don’t know how it feels not to work, to just focus on school,” Johnson said. “I just want a regular job, go and put in my hours and go home.”

Johnson said he usually works 12 hour days on top of classwork.

“My work is never done,” Johnson said. “There is always something that needs to be done … with that kind of schedule, you’re always exhausted.”

Most non-traditional students return to school because they have been displaced in their careers, said Kathy Shaffer, coordinator of non-traditional student services.

“They are looking to gain the skills needed to better their careers in the changing professional landscape,” Shaffer said.

The non-traditional student service office tries to cater to the challenges students face, but Shaffer said but it can be harder to reach them because most have off-campus responsibilities such as work and family commitments, meaning they spend far less time on campus than other students.

“It makes it difficult to implement on-campus programming for them,” Shaffer said.

Taylor Damann, a senior from Mascoutah studying political science, is one student who spends her fair share of time off campus.

“As soon as I got to SIU in January, I immediately had two jobs on top of the six classes I was taking,” said Damann, who is 21 years old and considered non-traditional because she is financially independent.

After more than two years in the Air Force Academy, she worked in the food industry for a short time before enrolling at SIU for the spring 2017 semester.

Damann said she could have used more support from the university during her transition period. She said the university could implement a mentoring program that assigns each non-traditional student a fellow student mentor from the same department.

“I came in the middle of the year, and I felt as though I was on my own to figure it out,” Damaan said. “The school didn’t connect me to somebody who could help … You really have to want it as a non-traditional student — if I hadn’t really wanted it, I don’t know if I would have duked it out.”

Damann said she felt like she had to really try hard to have the full college experience at SIU.

“Non-traditional students have to work more for their relationships, as opposed to traditional students who meet during their freshman years,” Damann said.

Her transition into “SIU’s party culture” was shocking, she said.

Having joined the military at 17 years old, Damann said her experience as an 18-year-old was characterized more by doing push ups in hallways than by partying in college bars.

“I never had the time to think about how super cool it will be to go drink alcohol while doing a handstand upside down,” Damann said.

Damann said the discipline she learned in the military helped her stick through the difficulties of coming to campus as a non-traditional student.

The non-traditional student office has been working to implement new ways to cater to non-traditional students, Shaffer said.

“The biggest challenge for me now is to come up with creative ways to coordinate programming to cater to their needs,” said Shaffer, who started in her role less than a year ago.

Shaffer said she wants to start holding office hours somewhere on campus where students concentrate, rather than her actual office.

“I want to go to where the students are,” Shaffer said.“I will pick a spot at the food court in the Student Center just in case students have questions for me and my office.”

“By going where the students are, I am better able to serve not only the non-traditional students but the entire student body as well,” Shaffer said.

She said she hopes this change will increase awareness on campus of her office and the services it can provide, which, Shaffer said, have been misunderstood in the past.

“Non-traditional student services is primarily a connection base for students to different offices on campus who can better address their needs,” Shaffer said. “The places that we connect them to are the experts on campus in that particular area, whether it’s financial aid or its veterans issues.”

Shaffer said her office is now beginning to implement more programming for non-traditional students, including a new transfer transition program that connects new transfer students to student mentors in campus.

Damann said a mentor could go a long way for non-traditional students who come to campus not knowing anyone or where to go.

“Being non-traditional students at SIU means feeling like freshmen without acting freshmen,” she said.

Staff writer Francois Gatimu can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @frankDE28.

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