Sarah Bregman walked down the hill during commencement at Kansas University this May alongside approximately 4,000 other graduates.
As she received her two degrees — one in East Asian languages and literature and the other in Global and International Studies — her husband, Daniel, and their one-year-old daughter, Kaya, looked on.
Because Bregman was married as a sophomore and had Kaya near the end of her junior year, she was classified as a nontraditional student, one of about 3,000 who attend Kansas University.
“Most campuses are traditional-aged college campuses, and KU fits into that mold,” said Aaron Quisenberry, who works with Nontraditional Student Services at the University.
Students who are deemed “nontraditional” are parents of dependent children, are married, are veterans, are three or more years older than classmates or commute 10 or more miles to campus.
Another defining feature is that these students usually have an extra set of challenges. Those who have succeeded advise those now starting the process to seek help from peers, from campus groups and from school officials whose jobs are designed to help nontraditional students graduate.
Juggling school, motherhood
After Bregman married and had a child, her free time completely dissolved.
During her senior year, she and Daniel took turns looking after Kaya because they could not afford day care. Bregman's homework was completed in the middle of the night on her iPhone, which she set to its dimmest level to avoid disturbing the sleeping baby.
“Before that, I could manage things,” Bregman said. “Even if I was tired, I could drink coffee and stay up all night, but after she was born, my schedule wasn’t my own.”
Though it wasn’t always easy, Bregman kept her grades up and graduated in four years, as planned. In April, she was named a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will provide full funding for three years in the Regional Studies East Asia program at Harvard beginning this fall.
To those who might be in the position she once was, Bregman advised using institutional resources that target nontraditional students or students who come from low-income backgrounds.
On top of time management, she also stressed the importance of making connections with advisors and faculty members who can act as a support system and help with finding scholarship and fellowship opportunities.
“I found people who would be willing to vouch for me and help me,” Bregman said. “The only reason I was able to graduate on time is because I had professors who knew my work ethic before I had a baby, and they were understanding. They were my greatest allies.”
At Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, the Community Career Service Center hosts workshops on career transitioning. Crystal Stokes, Career Information Specialist at JCCC, said advisors assist working adults with finding fast-track options to obtaining degrees.
Leann Cunningham, Employee Relations and Internship Coordinator, said many students attend JCCC to "retool."
"They may have been downsized with the recession and so they're looking at gaining new skills in some other career field and getting back into the job market," Cunningham said.
Baker University's School of Professional and Graduate Studies caters to working adults by scheduling courses online or one night per week at several locations. There are 10 online programs through which students can earn degrees.
Student-led groups such as the Nontraditional Student Foundation offer social opportunities, connecting nontraditional students for peer support. The Veteran's Club at JCCC and the Collegiate Veterans Association at Kansas University specifically provide resources to those who have served in the military, like alum Andrew Foster.
'Everything just changed'
Foster spent six years in the Navy after high school and worked for two more years in California before returning to Kansas to attend college in 2008 at age 25.
After three years at KU, and one of them on academic probation, Foster graduated in December 2011 with a degree in political science.
He said his first year was the hardest. After being in the military and working a steady job, he had trouble adapting to the process of higher education.
“Before, I had a good job where I worked a 40-hour week and had a salary and a company car,” Foster said. “I went to school and everything just changed.”
When Foster joined the Collegiate Veterans Association and found his niche at the Dole Institute of Politics in his sophomore year, he was finally able to settle in.
Foster credits most of his success to the support he received through those two organizations, and advises that other nontraditional students find their place on campus, too.
“You have to take an active role in changing what you’re doing,” Foster said. “My academics suffered my first year because I didn’t want to get involved and I was intimidated by the academic process that I didn’t really understand.”