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Don't stereotype non-traditional students

David Schultz
By David Schultz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
August 25, 2005
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Just as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, students too return to Tucson. The middle of August comes around, and the students of the UA return to campus from their far away locales, geographical and mental.

But there are always those students who are overlooked. No one is trying to sell them a "decorative vase" for their dorm rooms, and no one is giving them free condoms on the UA Mall. That's right; I'm talking about the older students, or non-traditional students, as they are often labeled.

Non-traditional students are older than the average student, sometimes by 15, 20 even 65 years. The 2004-2005 UA Factbook says that 4.6 percent of all undergraduates here at the UA are over the age of 30.

For any number of reasons, they're either getting a late start on their bachelor's degrees or they're coming back to finish school. Tommy Lee comes to mind as the most prominent non-traditional student, although certainly not the most typical.

Traditional students' opinions of these non-traditional students, Tommy Lee notwithstanding, are very diverse. Some feel that they enrich a debate with their unique views and that they enliven discussions with their hard-earned tales of experience in the real world. Katie Jacobsen, an undeclared freshman, told me, "They know more of the future because of their age, they can relate to what's going on, and they know more about outside issues."

Others feel that they can act obnoxiously in the classroom, and have a tendency to take over a lecture with their often inappropriately personal stories that have little to no relevance on the topic being discussed. Andrew Goudinoff, a former student, noted, "They're usually good students with a good rapport with the professor, but they can sometimes act like teacher's pets."

They're usually good students with a good rapport with the professor, but they can sometimes act like teacher's pets.

- Andrew Goudinoff, former student


In the end, though, non-traditional students are beneficial to the college learning experience because they can give students a little taste of what it's like post-college.

What could a 19-year-old sophomore who has been supported by his parents in every sense of the word for his entire life possibly know about the pressures of parenthood and homeownership? Not only has he never experienced any of these things, he would probably find it difficult to even envision their harsh realities.

Non-traditional students help steer a lecture away from the theoretical and toward the practical. It's pretty hard to support a theory on inner city poverty in a discussion when someone who has been impoverished in an inner city disagrees with it. Non-traditional students inject a non-traditional perspective into the classroom, and this break from the collegiate norm can make any classroom debate or professor's lecture even more enlightening.

Of course, there are always going to be those non-traditional students who play into the stereotype of an indignant elderly person, stricken with an incurable case of logorrhea (and no, that is not some kind of reference to their digestive systems).

These people somehow always manage to sit at the front of the class, invariably with their laptops and their backpacks with wheels, and regardless of the topic of the day's lecture, they will always seem to have something very long-winded to say about it.

But just as most stereotypes of groups of people are actually based on a disproportionately vocal minority, most non-traditional students do not actually fit this characterization. They are just like you and me - they study, they worry about their classes and their personal lives, and they just want a degree - but with a few more years under their proverbial belts.

Traditional students should respect their non-traditional counterparts' input in class and should try to listen to what they have to say. At the same time, non-traditional students should respect the fact that the other students in the class did not come to hear their stories of the days of yore, and they should try to make their comments concise and insightful.

Non-traditional students have a valued role in the educational system, and most of them understand and respect this role. We shouldn't let the ones who don't dictate our opinions of the ones who do.

David Schultz is a political science and philosophy senior. He can be reached at

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