The Unconventional Path: An Ode to Nontraditional Students

Updated: September 2, 2020

By Johnnie Pope
Intern Program Manager, Discovery, Inc.


The last decade has been defined by various forms of disruption. Nothing truly fits in a nice, neat box anymore. In 2010, I definitely did not imagine myself paying a stranger to drive me to my destination (unless it was on a form of public transportation). Even better, I didn’t imagine that my extensive physical catalog of music would soon be nonexistent—though I’m still an avid vinyl record collector. 

I’m saying all of this to show that things have changed, and we are starting to see a shift in the workforce as well. Not everyone is pursuing the typical path of high school to college to entry-level job. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see Millennials/Gen Z’ers that operate as their own LLC. Others are choosing to gather real work experience before dedicating time to upskilling through post-secondary programs.

With so many changes, many people will knowingly or unknowingly pursue the nontraditional path when it comes to their education.


What defines a nontraditional student? 

Nontraditional students can be classified in a few ways. Mainly, a nontraditional student is a person who does not enroll in post-secondary education immediately after graduating high school. Nontraditional students also include students who: did not graduate high school, are financially independent, work full- or part-time during school, and/or are parents or single parents. If you fit into any of these classifications, you’re following a nontraditional path.

If you’re a nontraditional student, it’s good to know you are not alone. 

In 2014, I decided to jump back into higher learning. To give some background, I was freshly removed from serving in the United States Air Force for eight years. I embarked on a new career path in Human Resources and thought it’d be great to not only start off fresh with a job, but also with schooling. Not only did I complete my undergraduate studies, but I dominated my graduate studies as well. As a former nontraditional student, I’d like to share my tips on how to make the most of this experience.


Johnnie Pope at home

It’s okay and not uncommon

Speaking from experience, the fear of adding extra work to my already busy life kept me from enrolling in school for some time. Not everyone is pursuing higher learning to accelerate their career path; that is only one of many possibilities. Some people want to change careers or simply have made it a goal of theirs. For me, it was important to complete my education because I was a first-generation college student. It was a promise I needed to keep for myself. Additionally, I wanted to scale my knowledge base to help grow my business ventures. But I was nervous.

Surprisingly, as I vetted institutions, my doubts subsided. From the admissions process to the course schedules, each school was well prepared to meet my unique needs. In fact, since COVID has disrupted so much, this is a great time to consider upskilling going into the fall. A plethora of distant learning opportunities are open, and they can have a great impact on your bottom line. While it’s normal to be nervous, keep in mind that great institutions should make you feel secure and have protocols in place for all demographics. If that is missing, it’s not the school for you, and you may be setting yourself up for failure.


Utilize your experiences

Before deciding to move on to my secondary studies, I already had eight years of work experience, plus raising a family and several other lofty aspirations. For many nontraditional students, the time management portion of going to school is difficult. This is a very common area of adjustment as a freshman. But mastering my work-life balance as an employee allowed me to easily hit deliverables as a student.

For anyone who is marginalizing their experience just because the environment is different: Don’t devalue your experience. Remember that your unique experience is actually attractive to employers and can work to your advantage.

As companies visit campuses to participate in panels, career fairs, and alumni events (or virtual events!), your experience is an important characteristic that makes you stand out. It’s your personal brand, and you should shout it to potential employers, whether it’s leveraging previous on-the-job experience or having leadership skills. 


Allyship and support

The cherry on top during my undergraduate and graduate studies was getting connected to other nontraditional students. We all pushed each other to achieve the goals we’d set. As a nontraditional student, having that support system in place is key. We routinely shared our best practices, and during my graduate studies, I met up with my colleagues two or three times each week. 

In addition to getting advice, you’ll find yourself giving advice as well. Our group was a great mix of nontraditional and traditional students, and we learned from each other. Remember, we are all playing the long game here, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Any type of support system is helpful. It can be found through campus services, employers, your colleagues, family, and friends. And this connection is even more vital now that everything is virtual.