STORY BY ANNA VANWAARDHUIZEN
Unlike Drake University journalism student Brian Carlson, the average college student doesn’t have to wait over two decades to start their degree. Unlike business major Brytani Cavil, most students don’t have to start their day by dropping their kids off at a day care program.
Neither Carlson nor Cavil can be described as a traditional college student.
What is the traditional college student like? They probably graduated from high school with a plan in mind to follow the well-worn path of the many college students that came before them. Pick a school, start the fall after graduation, maybe join Greek life, come to class 15 minutes late, maybe wearing sweatpants and carrying the weight of bad late night choices on his or her shoulders. Most importantly, the traditional college student gets an education with relatively few interruptions or challenges besides schoolwork.
The first time Brian Carlson, 43, started college, things did not work out exactly as planned. After losing the support of his parents over his sexuality, the east coast native stopped attending school and moved to Key West, Florida. He stayed there, working as a waiter and bartender, for fifteen years. It was there that he met his partner. Later, Carlson moved to Iowa to be near him. With a new support system, he was able to start taking courses at Des Moines Area Community College and later transfer into Drake with a double major in English and Magazine Journalism.
Carlson isn’t the only nontraditional student at Drake trying to juggle school and life.
Until a little more than a year ago, Brytani Cavil, 20, was a typical college student. She was studying marketing and public relations. Her studies were interrupted by the arrival of her twin boys, Kory and Kyson Johnson. She took a semester off to adjust and begin her life as a new mother. Because of high school credit, a heavy course load, and summer classes she didn’t fall behind on credits and is still on track for graduation in four years.
Non-traditional students are a growing section of college students. Universities like Drake are helping these students start and finish their college degrees. For Carlson and Cavil, much of this guidance came through the individuals that work at Drake. Carlson spoke highly of admission counselors that helped guide him through the decision process. Cavil had help from Randall Blum, assistant Dean of the College of Business and Public Administration, to plan how her semester off would affect her college career.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, undergraduate enrollment for those older than 25 rose over 41 percent between 2000 and 2011. The number is expected to continue to rise, though not nearly as rapidly. Another survey from 2011 indicated that while full- time college student status is still dominated by those under 25, part- time status is split almost evenly between the younger and older crowds. With an increase in older students, accommodations must be made to fit their needs at universities around the country
Age is not the only determining factor of a non-traditional student, though it is often the most recognizable.
Like Cavil, a student might carry his or her own challenges, like raising a family. Other characteristics of a non-traditional student may include attending school part time, working nearly full time in addition to schoolwork or living independently.
Non-traditional students face different challenges than the rest of a student population. Cavil, for instance, wakes up at six a.m. every morning. By 6:30 a.m., she is ready and waking up her twins. She aims to get out the door by 7:10 a.m., and by 8 a.m. Cavil is already in class or working on campus. After being in and out of classes all day, she spends a few hours in the library.
“Even though I fit in time to go to the library, it’s not really enough time for me to really study. When I go home, I have to cook dinner, give the boys their baths, put them to bed, and finish my homework. It leads me to being up late and having to get up early again. It’s really tiring.”
Carlson starts his day early as well. Each day, he drives 30 minutes from Johnston to Drake’s campus to start class at 9:30 in the morning. For the past two years, Carlson has taken six classes each semester. With only three semesters left, this is his last with six classes.
As for challenges, Carlson points to the changes in education since his first time starting college. Many of his credits didn’t transfer due to new technological developments or differences in curriculum and the education system. However, not everything about starting over is negative.
“At the same time, it is an advantage. I am learning the new technologies and working with them. I will have an advantage I’ll be much more modernized when I graduate.”
Both students have busy lives. In addition to academic responsibilities, both are involved in extracurricular activities and have other obligations. A full time schedule, work, and twin boys aren’t the only things for which Cavil is responsible. She is also president of the Coalition of Black Students on Drake’s campus. When she attends events for the organization, her twins often have to come with her. Making time for her kids is a priority for her, no matter what the situation.
“My mother had me when she was in college. She was always at work, always doing something. We never really got to spend one-on-one time together. That’s why I really make a point to spend time with my kids. I keep them my number one priority.”
Carlson’s husband supports him while he is at school, so a job isn’t among his obligations. Carlson dedicates his time to an extracurricular activity for each of his majors. For magazines, he writes for Drake Magazine, calling on his culinary and bartending background to complete pieces on specialty drinks, global food found locally and most recently a gourmet grilled cheese. For his English side, he is head judge of a Drake sponsored literary competition.
With the challenges that accompany non-traditional students, the question stands as to why Drake was the right choice.
Carlson said he chose Drake because they treated him like a person, rather than a number, like big universities did.
“For me, I think this is wonderful and everyone should do it,” he said. “Not a lot of people have the opportunity to do it, but I’m very lucky. I realize how lucky I am to come back and to do it in a school like this.”