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As a father, when I see mail with those words in the address block, I’m expecting one of my children’s names. Since I’m also an undergrad student, though, Texas A&M occasionally still sends something to my house, addressed “to the parents of Phillip Garner.” They’re usually advertisements for apartment complexes, or telling my concerned guardians how well the school is keeping me safe. At 35, though, my mother and father haven’t received a piece of mail on my behalf in a long time.
With my wife making jokes about mail tampering and “telling my mom,” I usually open and deal with the content myself; it’s not like I’m going to call up the school and complain, but those letters are indicative of a problem I deal with daily. I am an anomaly in the university setting. I am the infamous “nontraditional student,” something the university doesn't know quite how to deal with.
For traditional students, university life can fill quickly with opportunities to engage with peers. There are student groups, roommates, sporting events, study sessions. Professors even take time out of their lectures to train and guide young minds in the ways of the world. I can’t speak for all big schools, but Aggieland excels at teaching the traditional, 18-22 year old undergraduate. In all this circus of education, though, nontraditional students can feel like we’re not even sure if the school knows we exist. While peer tutors can’t fix every problem on campus, it seems almost part of the writing center tradition to ask, “What can we do to fix that?”
I think we can actually do quite a bit. Think back with me, when was the last time you had an older student come in? How did you handle the session? I've heard younger tutors suggest that they were leery about giving advice to older students, either because (1) they felt unqualified to teach someone more experienced, or because (2) they thought the student would not value their input, perhaps see the tutor as “just a kid.” While I’m sure that happens sometimes, among those I know as a tutor or as a friend, those attitudes seem to be the exception, not the rule.
First off, younger peer tutors are absolutely qualified to advise a nontraditional student writing. A peer tutor isn’t just more comfortable and competent than others in their own age. I’d stack our peer tutors up against most anyone in the community at-large. Age can sometimes teach us laziness, reinforce our bad habits, or simply find us left behind on education practices and norms. When I restarted my college career a few years ago, I kept hearing professors use a particular term, and since everyone in the room seemed to know what it meant, I just went along. One day, I heard my son, then a sophomore in high school, use the same term. When I asked him about it, he screwed his face up in confusion and said “Dad, how did you make it into college, but you don’t know what a rubric is?” The concept seems standard, almost a given, today, but wasn't something I was taught in Texas high school in the 90’s.
As for valuing a tutor’s input, keep in mind that for many older students, going back to school was and is a humbling experience. One client actually told me, “What do I know about this? I haven’t written a term paper since Clinton was president!” As adult learners, we entered the college arena because we realized, for whatever reason, and however late, the value of earning a college education. If an older student comes to the writing center, not only are they willing to take advice, they might just be your most attentive client of the day.
This is the point where I’m supposed give you the magic three bullet points for handling nontraditional students, right? Or is that just a leftover from my old habits, it’s hard to tell sometimes! No bullet points, but think about it this way. We've all worked with that client writing a paper on “Unsteady Long Bearing Squeeze-film Dampers” (true story), in which the client is the topic expert, but maybe grammar is a weakness, or organization. In the same way, the nontraditional student comes in with experiences, worldviews you don’t have yet, but you come to the table with fresh ideas and a greater exposure to the technicalities, and, more than likely, a love for writing that’s rare at any age. Those traits are exponentially valuable, as long as, like any consultation, we approach with an open mind and the goal of improving writers along with their writing.