These days, there are more ways than ever to approach higher education. There’s not just one yellow brick road, starting with high school graduation and ending with “The Four Year Degree.” Adult students now make up approximately one-third of all college students, and each student, regardless of age, has a unique story of how he or she ended up on the path to an education.
This sparked my curiosity. What are the different routes people take on their educational journeys? What do people face along the way? What can we learn from their stories?
For Meg Shiel, the journey started like you might expect: when she was in high school, she set for herself the major goal of graduating from college. While this isn’t so uncommon among those completing their secondary education, it held special significance for Shiel. If she accomplished this goal, she’d be the first person in her family to earn a college degree. But what Shiel didn’t anticipate was that her educational path would have just a few detours, and take her more than a decade to complete.
Like many students, Shiel spent her free time during college working to pay the bills. In her case, this meant something like sixty hours a week, which forced her to take less than a full load of classes. She doesn’t remember a lot about her freshman and sophomore years, but it wasn’t entirely because she was distracted by her job. When it came down to it, she simply didn’t have the confidence in her late teens to get the most out of her courses. For example, she said if she had a question in class, she wouldn’t raise her hand because she “didn’t want to sound stupid.” A classic example I think most of us can relate to. I know I certainly can.
She muddled through this way until the beginning of her junior year, when some opportunities more alluring than completing coursework pulled her in some different directions. She spent time traveling in Australia and France, and then eventually, she fell in love and had two children.
While raising her young kids, she half-heartedly took a few courses in order to chip away at her degree, but it wasn’t until her youngest child was two years old that she felt a surge of inspiration. She returned to college in her late twenties as a nontraditional student, and that’s when something amazing happened. Her education finally clicked!
“I was more mature,” she said. “I cared about my classes and loved my homework. I felt confident about talking to my professors.” In May 2012, Shiel finally accomplished that goal she set for herself so many years before, and graduated from Colorado State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and a minor in English.
As for her future aspirations, Shiel is happy where she’s at, but she knows she has plenty of time to pursue more educational adventures. Ideas abound. “I have this glamorous idea about being a professor,” she said. “In my head, that’s such a shiny job.” She’s not sure if she’ll choose to dive into a Ph.D. program. But who knows? The gleam in her eye proves that the possibilities truly are endless.
So this leaves us with one question: Did life really get in Shiel’s way, or did it pave the way? Sometimes the life experiences of nontraditional students make the educational journey so much richer. This is true for people with all kinds of goals, whether returning to finish a degree, like Shiel, or trying to enter into a completely new field.
What diversions in your path have you encountered? What have you learned? Pay it forward and share this story, along with your own insights, with others who could use some inspiration.