Breaking tradition

When I said I wanted to write something about being a nontraditional student, a fellow tutor asked, insightfully, what the term actually meant.  So I looked it up.
According to our school’s website:
A non-traditional student [includes] any of the following: over age 25, married or partnered, having children, a veteran of a branch of the Armed Services, a student who works full-time, or a student who is enrolled part-time.” 
Most nontraditional students started reading this like a checklist, not an “or” statement.  25, check.  Married, check. Veteran, check plus.  It’s almost a game of  “do I fit more categories than you?”  I probably do, by the way.  I fit all except the last two, which usually come as a set, so I think they should be one item. 
Think about that, though.  When the school goes to offer services to groups of students, “nontraditionals” tend to count as one lump category, but a 22 year old mother, working full time, taking night classes has a completely different set of needs from the 30 year old single Marine veteran. 
Of course, the writing center is in a unique position to meet even this diverse group one-on-one, as individuals.  That’s powerful, in ways you may not realize.   In a major university, the nontraditionals can get lost in the shuffle, their unique offerings undervalued.  When they come to the writing center, though, they are exactly represented. 
I don’t know what yours is like, but our writing center teaches us to treat each consultation separately, avoid getting into “paper mill” mode.  You know what I mean, where the paper hits the desk and you’re on it immediately, looking for things to improve.  At the end of the session, you know all about the paper, but have to double check the person’s name.  We shouldn’t do that to anyone, but it can be doubly dangerous with nontraditionals.  Odds are the nontraditional student is coming in for more than just term paper revisions.  They already struggle with feeling like an inadequate member of the school.  If  the writing center looks like other programs on campus, where they’re technically allowed, but where they don’t actually fit, they probably won’t come back.  If we can make nontraditionals feel like they’re the friend we’ve been hoping to meet all semester, I’d put money on them becoming a regular visitor.
The best part; this couldn’t be any easier.  Start a conversation.  Find a connection.  Get to know everyone you tutor as much as reasonable.  While you’re asking them about that essay prompt, ask where they’re from.  In between talking about organization plans, talk about weekend plans.  Using my examples from earlier, getting a mom to talk about her kids isn’t exactly pulling teeth, and that Marine veteran wants to tell you why Japan was the best country he ever visited.  Chances are they’ll even have some hint of it in their work they bring in.    
Remember, too, to embrace the differences that pop up. You won’t understand every obscure Bill Clinton sex joke, and they might have no idea what a vine video is (I just learned that one last semester).  That’s ok.   In fact, my point is that we make a place for these differences TO be ok. 
So basically, when we see someone come in who doesn’t fit the usual mold, let’s make a real effort to make “them” feel like part of “us.”  I know the writing center is up to the task, because it worked for this married thirty-something Veteran dad.


  1. Really good thoughts here. Currently, I attend a community college where nontraditional students are the norm. Lumping all nontraditional students together into one category sort of defeats the purpose of having them recognized as "nontraditional" in the first place, right? I began my college career as a nontraditional student, and am now a traditional student. I feel like my time spent as a nontraditional student gave me insight into how diverse each students learning style is different. Really good thoughts here, Phil, thanks.


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