The NonTraditional Life: What’s a “Nontrad?”

Al Fairchild, Staff Reporter

You know us. Non-traditional students. There are more of us around now than when I became one the first time back in 1971. There are more of us now and we’re older, due mostly, I suspect, to the state of the economy.

Back then—in the 70s—it occurred to me that getting an education might be more worthwhile than crawling through the mud or digging ditches. It was a time when most non-traditional college students were military vets, and a 24-year-old freshman like me was about as rare as a 64-year-old senior—again like me— today.

My college career began at the University of Nebraska, where I unfortunately bit off more than I could chew. After a couple of years, I dropped out to “get a job” and relax. Being a newlywed carrying 21 credits in pursuit of three majors and two minors while holding down a full-time construction job and serving in the Ready Reserve, well… it just didn’t work. It should have been obvious, but you know how twenty-somethings are: I thought I was invincible.

Forty years later, after having begun that hiatus from higher education, what had turned into an extraordinarily tedious job abruptly ended when it was offshored. I found myself faced with a decision. Accept the dismal end of a lifetime of work just a few years before retirement, or make it into the opportunity of a lifetime? I chose the latter, and here I am at Lakeland College—once again a nontrad.

I should point out that the term “nontrad” isn’t meant to be some sort of ill-conceived, trendy slang term gone wrong. It’s just a way of avoiding having to spell out “non-traditional student at a tertiary educational institution” every time I refer to myself or my peers.

We nontrads are, for the most part, the undergraduate commuters driving the generic-looking, full-sized four-door sedans or the rusty pickups you see in parking lots E, F, and back past Chase near the chapel. You can tell we’ve been there by the oil spills we’ve left between the parking lines.

We can be here part-time of our own choice, seeking individual fulfillment, or we might be enrolled full-time, salvaging a lifetime of work steered wrong by a bad economy or new technology. Personal enrichment on steroids.

At 64 years of age, I’m sort of the king of the nontrads. At least I like to think so. I call myself “Lakeland College’s oldest living undergraduate.” Well, the oldest one still going to classes full time. But I say that while not knowing the facts. Anyone who’s got me beat and feels slighted should write a letter to the editor, and I’ll immediately concede—in writing.

I hear the varied reactions from family members and friends—from the condescending, “Oh, isn’t that cute… going back to school,” to a real recognition of just how challenging it really is. I’d forgotten just how tough getting educated could be.

Don’t let anybody tell you the real work begins after school ends. You’re working now.

Maybe I’ll regale you with tales of spur-of-the-moment journeys to Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, K-Mart, and ShopKo. The beginnings of semesters are the only times my wife, who brings home the bacon by herself now, really gets to enjoy my education. After being barred from spoiling the grandkids, she gets to drag me to all the Back-To-School sales.

I might mention the extreme range of emotions I’ve endured as a nontrad, from lows like walking into a lecture hall the first day of class and hearing whispers of, “Who’s the old guy?” and wondering if this really WAS the right decision, to fantastic highs, like literally feeling my calcified brain become once-again flexible through use—a roller-coaster ride of gazing into a mirror at a used-up old shell pretending to be a young student, followed by the realization of actually having become twenty years younger inside because a life-changing event has happened.

One thing is certain. A nontrad at Lakeland gains more than just a formal education. The school itself becomes a sort of second home, and the faculty, staff, and classmates become much more than extras in the story of a single life. They become family, and the family becomes a story.

I look forward to telling you mine.


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