Cover Story: Seizing the Opportunities

Non-traditional students flourish in local programs

 
Jymi Bolden


Megan Downing



Megan Downing was awake until 2 a.m., studying for an ethics exam. Afterwards, she says, "It sucked. Until today I had a 4.0." Then she laments about the variety of tests a professor can give — fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, short answer or essay.

Downing sounds like a typical undergrad. But at Northern Kentucky University, where she's a business education major with an information systems minor, she's deemed the "poster child for non-traditional classes."

Her story has a common beginning. Instead of going to college after high school 20 years ago, Downing got married and started a family. She and her husband had a plan: She would go back to school once her children went to school. She earned a nursing license from Booth Hospital School of Nursing in Erlanger, became a critical care LPN and dedicated the remainder of her time to being a wife and mother.

Plans changed in 1990 when Downing and one of her three children were in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.

Her arm was seriously damaged. She underwent a year of physical therapy, but the scars remain visible and she still cannot straighten her arm. She returned to work as a private care nurse, but had a hard time finding cases because she couldn't lift.

"I loved nursing — critical care nursing and private care nursing," she insists. But she realized that she could no longer perform her job when she was assigned to a patient with a ventilator. The job required two hands: one to manually pump the ventilator and the other to suction.

Downing began helping out at Northern Elementary School in Falmouth as a computer lab assistant. Teachers at the school encouraged her to look into completing a degree. But even after attending an informational seminar for non-traditional students at NKU, it took her two years to get up the courage to register for classes.

"(I was) nervous about failing and nervous about not having the time for other responsibilities," she says. "Look at me, I'm 42 and I had to start from scratch."

Joyce McCoy, academic director for UC's College of Continuing Education, says Downing's concerns are common. "But adult learners are overachievers and do well in college," McCoy explains. At UC, approximately 10 percent of adult students earn a 3.6 or higher grade point average each quarter.

Downing agrees that non-traditional students tend to do better, not because they are smarter, but because they work hard. "For the most part, non-traditional students are just really dedicated," Downing says. "They're going to do this."

Once she decided she was going to return to school, finances became an issue. Her son was preparing for his freshman year at Centre College, and Downing wasn't comfortable using her family's money. She applied for and received a grant from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to assist with tuition and books. The grant required that she had to take classes full-time.

She knew she couldn't pass up the money, but she was nervous about juggling work, family and school. "(So) everywhere I go, I take a book," Downing laughs. "And not a fun book: a school book."

She smiles when she describes her method of communicating with her sons: "white notes," she calls them, informal notes she can post electronically. With these methods, a large backpack and a bright red planner, she has managed to set priorities and keep up with her full-time responsibilities.

Downing has now completed 42 credit hours. (By taking summer courses, she has surpassed her son at Centre.) She's found a few ways to avoid the hour-long commute to NKU's campus and continue working as a computer lab manager. In particular, she took four telecourses, classes broadcast over cable stations. Students can watch an original telecourse, try to catch the reruns or record the class. Generally, professors are available by phone or e-mail, and students are required to come to campus to take exams.

Downing also finished two Web-based courses, took a couple of basic courses offered at Pendleton County High School and put together two portfolios (on public speaking and first aid) that give her credit. Although portfolios are not universally accepted for credit, according to Downing, they can be an excellent way to ease into the university atmosphere and system.

Xavier University's department of undergraduate education for adults doesn't require portfolios for prior learning, but gives credit for previous college courses, military credit, and work experience gained through required training, seminars or classes. XU also began summer workshops, aptly defined as "power classes," where students go to class several hours a day, five days a week for two weeks and earn a semester's worth of credit. Dean Susan Wideman says these classes help traditional students finish their degrees, but the university found some non-traditional students were using a two-weeks summer vacation from work to take these courses.

Downing took four classes at NKU this summer, but hers were five- and eight-week programs. (One was the ethics class that might have messed up her GPA.) She has signed up to take another 18 credit hours this fall.

She speaks highly of her college experience so far. She has taken a class with her niece and sister, both non-traditional students. Downing wishes she could get her husband to go back to school.

"I think college is good for you," she says. "Even if it's just an associate's degree, at least it's something. ... It would have be so much easier for me had I gone to a traditional nursing school."

Barbara Hedges, interim director for NKU's Credit Continuing Education and Distance Learning, tries to make the transition to the university setting more comfortable for non-traditional students.

"Making plans for college can be a daunting task, for even the most savvy high school senior," she says. "Consider the plight of adults seeking higher education who don't have the support of an informed guidance counselor, mentoring teachers, checkbook-ready parents or an encouraging peer group."

UC, XU and NKU offer non-traditional students a variety of options to begin or continue a college education. Many non-traditional students face obstacles before approaching any university. Once they take that step, half the battle is over. Downing says the rest of it is worth the work.

"I would have liked to have started sooner," she says, "but I didn't realize the opportunities were there." ©

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