Non-traditional students find comfort, friendship in group

By Kevin Lyons

“A fair number of people really can’t comprehend what it’s like to work, go to school and take care of a family,” Laura Kelly, senior geology major, said.

Kelly is a single mother with two school-aged daughters. She also is a full-time student, who is trying to raise her family and graduate next December.

She says a large campus like NIU can be an unfriendly place for non-traditional students because her social life differs from the traditional student. “I don’t have the time to go out and party on the weekends like the other students.”

She said that sometimes professors and students have attitudes toward older students. “The reactions I get are that people don’t think I’m a real student. They don’t think I’m serious about being a scientist at my age,” Kelly said.

“We’re just as committed as other students and sometimes more so,” she said.

She said sometimes she is forced to bring her children to class and while most of her professors and classmates have been cooperative, some people still shoot dirty looks and make comments like, “We don’t need brats in our class.”

Kelly said opinions often change when people see how well behaved her children are.

“People ought to give us a chance before they make up their minds whether or not the children belong,” she said.

Kelly worked as a paramedic for a number of years and was left as the sole supporter of her children after a bad marriage. “I always wanted to go to school, but never had the opportunity,” she said.

“My kids were a very large motivating force in my decision to go back to school, and they continue to be.” Kelly said she considers herself very fortunate and sees her kids as a constant reminder to why she’s in school.

Kelly is vice-president of SWAN, Students Who are Non-Traditional. Kelly said she and other non-traditional students find some solace in SWAN.

“There’s a lot of isolation for us. There are a lot of us but we all feel alone,” Kelly said. “We were real surprised to find out the numbers a few years ago.”

Linda Jennings, SWAN president, echoed many of Kelly’s sentiments. She said the group provides a social outlet and network for students and tries to pave the way for other non-traditional students.

“We’re trying to combat some of the stereotypes people have,” Jennings said. SWAN has been around for about two years and they are trying to get a budget approved through the Student Association.

Jennings said about 39 percent of undergraduates and 93 percent of graduates technically fall under the NIU definition of non-traditional students. SWAN has about 70 to 80 members, but few are able to come together for meetings regularly because of their busy schedules.

Kelly said she hopes students and professors will be more careful judging older students in the future.

“Some students would really appreciate someone just coming up and saying hello,” Kelly said.