They are in the halls, in the classrooms, in the libraries, and maybe even on the bus. Some look like students; others resemble professors or lost parents. They are nontraditional students, and they walk among us.
In Spring 2010, there were 1,515 non-traditional students wandering the corridors of UB. Nontraditionals also make up 8.2 percent of the UB student enrollment, according to the Academic Planning and Budget Department. A non-traditional student goes to school full-time and ranges in age from 25 years old and up.
"I did a BA in business administration, but I wanted to get into a different field," said Debbie Mullins, a sophomore who is now 43 years old and is seeking a second degree in psychology. "[This is] something I've wanted to do for 11 years, and my son encouraged me to go back to school."
There are many paths to becoming a nontraditional student, and there are many reasons for following this path. Joining the military is one such reason.
"Out of high school I was on a bad path, so I joined the [Marines] to set me straight," said Scott Schenk, a junior history major who is 30 years old. "If it wasn't for the Marine Corps, I wouldn't have come back to school or been able to. That and my fiancée."
Some non-traditional students took some other type of work after high school and are just now coming to college. Oftentimes, family obligations or financial hardships have served to delay matriculation. For such students, finding their lives' purposes did not follow a straight path.
"I decided to do some good for the world and work in a non-profit religious capacity," said Dustin Muscato, a 30-year-old sophomore engineering major who graduated high school in 1999. "I was passionate about it, and so I went that route instead of college."
Many more already have degrees and/or careers, but for one reason or another want to change careers and require a new degree.
People can also experience a traumatic or life-changing event that makes a change necessary.
"I was in New York City when 9/11 happened, and the companies that I worked for left the city," said Ivanelli Scolari, a junior majoring in American studies who is 30 years old. "So I thought college was now or never."
Some already attended school in a traditional way, but had to leave for various reasons and are just now getting back to it. Financial woes often hit these students after a few years in college. They struggle with health problems, family obligations, and the possibility of simply not being ready for college quite yet.
"I dropped out of UB in 1979 after my freshman year," said Polly MacDavid, an English major graduating in June at the age of 50. "I didn't know I was bipolar back then."
Nontraditional students face many of the same problems as their younger peers – keeping up their grades and socializing – but they also face a bevy of other obstacles. One major problem is fitting into an environment geared toward people much younger, and in some cases generations younger. This puts an added burden on the already stressful college environment and can lead to a greater amount of failure among nontraditional students.
"Most of the students I interact with are young enough to be my children," MacDavid said. "UB can be a very lonely place."
"It's tough with the younger generation surrounding you," Mullins said. "I feel really out of place at times."
"It's actually a little aggravating dealing with 18-year-old kids who want to play with their cell phones. They don't want to listen to their professors," Schenk said. "I come here for a specific reason; I come here to learn, to get a degree."
"Since I started college I have been confronted with an underlying age and race prejudice among faculty, staff, and students," Scolari said. "That probably makes it harder for some of us to have an overall positive experience."
Some nontraditional students struggle to blend in with the college environment. People straight out of high school simply are not ready or equipped, for the most part, to socialize with people that are 10, 20 or even 30 years older than they are.
"Socially, it was a bit odd at first due to my age gap," Muscato said. "However, I have overcome this and have great relationships with tons of regular students."
There is also the added burden of paying for school on one's own. While there are many programs to help out students with low incomes, many nontraditional students tend to make too much money to take advantage of them without quitting their jobs. This places a lot of strain on time-management. With the added stress of raising children and other familial obligations, stress is a constant feature when school is in session.
"Coming in, not knowing what's expected, balancing work and school – it's overwhelming," Mullins said. "Sometimes I find myself doing homework at work."
There is some relief though. There are several programs that can help a student who knows where to look.
"Because I quit my job and I am independent, I have qualified for extensive tuition assistance and loans to support myself," Muscato said. "However, I do not believe most people my age can take advantage of it as much as I have been able to."
"I was working for American Sales in Lancaster, and I was working the night shift," Schenk said. "So I'd work 10 hours at night, come home, shower, grab my books and come here or ECC. That sucked, but ever since the G.I. Bill changed and all that stuff, I figure I'm making two times more not working than when I was working and going to school."
Many different paths lead non-traditional students to UB. While some came right in, others transferred from community colleges or were able to update their registration from their first attempt at higher education.
Muscato and Mullins came straight to UB. MacDavid came back to UB in '84 and '85, and then again in 2004 after gaining a paralegal certificate from Erie Community College, which is also where Schenk transferred from. Scolari is a transfer student from Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y.
Just as they have different paths that led them here, these students also have various visions of where they are headed.
"After I finish UB, I'll be going back to New York City," Scolari said. "My work experience has been in financial services, so I think I'll go back to that."
"I have no idea what I'll do after graduation. Hopefully [I'll] get into grad school – the poetics program here at UB," MacDavid said. "I really want to use my diaries and my poems to write some kind of autobiographical account of my life."
"I plan to pursue a degree in psychology," Mullins said. "I am not sure what I would like to pursue at this point career-wise."
"If I don't get into law enforcement, then I'll be looking for teaching jobs. After that, I'll go for my masters because that's required," Schenk said. "And then, grow old and be a number one grandpa. I want the T-Shirt to prove it."
"[I'll] get my MBA at UB and then go directly into industry," Muscato said. "Or go directly into industry and get my MBA concurrently."
Many non-traditional students also feel that they can also help their fellow students navigate through challenges they have already mastered.
"I feel I am very capable of dealing with faculty and professors due to my experience in the real world, and I feel this gives me a good advantage," Muscato said. "I have absolutely no [qualms] on getting help or asking for help."
"I wrote a big research paper on this idea that I have: all high school students should serve a mandatory two years in the military before going to college," Schenk said. "I think that everyone needs an eye-opening experience. It doesn't have to be the military either; it could be Peace Corps, or study abroad, really anything that gets you away from the isolating, closed-eye experience that you have from years one through 20 where all you learn is what's force-fed to you."
Big or small, old or young, rich or poor, students all share many characteristics in common. Perhaps an added bonus to getting to know that 40-year-old in English composition is that traditional students will face cross-generational relationships in their careers, and learning to work together is an integral part of today's job market.