Hello, my name is Kaia and I am a “non-traditional” student. Doesn’t that sound just awful?

I have never met a phrase with such inherent judgment as “non-traditional student.” Even when I hear it from others it leaves me wondering what mistakes were made to land here, in a community college, non-traditionally. This stigma is, of course, nonsense and immediately calls into question the subject of my post: What is a traditional student anyway? And why does our culture place so much pressure on following a “traditional” path?

Inauspicious Beginnings

Right after graduating from high school I enrolled in a four-year university in California and had what I consider to be a traditional student experience. By this I mean two things, first that I was fresh out of high school and my parent’s house; I lived in the dorms, and ate, worked, and spent the majority of my time on campus. The second thing that I feel made my experience “traditional” was that by the end of my first year I had learned how to make the perfect Jaeger bomb, had skipped about as many classes as I attended, and I was on academic probation. I had no idea what I wanted to do or even what I wanted out of life, but I did know that it was great to be 19 and have a fake ID. It will surprise no one to hear that I dropped out after three semesters. Everyone advised me against it, but in retrospect it may have been the best decision I ever made. After that I moved around a lot for a few years and worked terrible, entry-level customer-service jobs that barely covered my rent and bar tab.

The Lost Sheep

My family has always been ridiculously, undeservedly supportive of my shenanigans, but as I began to approach my mid-20s with absolutely nothing to show for it I was acutely aware that when I was talked about by my friends and family it was always with a downward glance and sympathetic tone. “Your daughter just got accepted into graduate school at UCLA? Well that’s nice, I guess. MY daughter is the receptionist at a gym and can smoke an eighth of marijuana in one night!” No one was proud of me, and rightfully so. I was the Lost Sheep.

I’m Awesome Now

Things are much different now. In the two years I’ve been at Front Range I have gone from being the Lost Sheep to being more successful than many of my “traditional” peers. This past fall alone I have maintained a 4.0 in my 16 credits of classwork while working two jobs and an internship, doing the Pathways Leadership Program, and participating in Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Let’s face it: I’m awesome now. I will graduate in May in the top 10 percent of my class, and I firmly believe that my non-traditional approach to my education has put me there (also, I work my a** off).

The Time I Took Off Was Priceless to Me

Our society puts so much pressure on the timeline of your life that any deviation makes one feel like a delinquent. “What do you mean you are 25, unmarried, and still working on your undergraduate?! What did you do!?!” Well, thank you for asking. I traveled on a whim to incredible cities. I’ve owned what I could fit in two suitcases, and slept on floors and in hallways just for the privilege of seeing beautiful places and having new adventures. I fell in love and devoted the time to a relationship to make it stable and enduring. I spent time focusing on myself and learned how to be an adult, what I need to take care of myself, and how to juggle responsibilities. I learned who I am, and what I am about.

Returning to School Motivated

When I returned to school, I returned motivated by actual real-world knowledge of one’s prospects without a college degree. I treat school like a career, and that is what sets me apart from the vast majority of traditional, fresh-out-of-high-school faces around me. I’m not here because it is my socially mandated next step toward success. I’m here because there is nowhere else on earth I would rather be.

So why, after just completing 13 years of legally mandated schooling, do we push kids to go to college right away? Is it really so bad to just take a break, enjoy being young, and trust that you’ll know when you are ready to continue? I cringe every time I hear someone say, “Don’t drop out, you’ll never go back.”

Trust Yourself

Don’t finish college just because you started, or because you are pressured to, or even because you don’t know what else to do. Finish because you love it. Finish because you are starved for knowledge. Finish because you want that next step so badly you would do anything for it. Utilize the resources that are offered to you and take full advantage of the services and guidance school offers. Everything here is for your benefit. Spoiler alert: It’s never going to be like that again any other place you work. Take advantage of it, and if you aren’t ready don’t push yourself. Trust yourself.

There’s No One Way to do Education

You know what you need. If you are right out of high school and champing at the bit for college, absolutely go and follow that enthusiasm. But never believe that there is only one way to do your education. Do not let outside pressure push you to the point where you hate school.

College is Not to be Feared or Hated or Even Endured

College is a challenge and a forum in which you can develop your skills before you are thrown into the cutthroat professional world. Don’t be afraid to be non-traditional, and if you already are, wear it with pride. Trust yourself and follow your path fearlessly. Be proud because it’s one of the few things in this world that truly belongs to you and you alone. Take time to be a lost sheep with one suitcase and sleep in the hallway if that’s what you need. Take a break and come back with passion and conviction. Do what you want to do, and do it well. Life’s too short to be traditional.


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