My experience as a nontraditional college student


Photo courtesy of Jeff Thomas

Jeff Thomas throughout the years. (Left to right) Thomas in 2011, posing very naturally for his senior pictures. Thomas in 2016 sitting on break at a commercial job site. Thomas in 2022 standing outside of O’Dowd Hall (photo by Sophie Hume).

I graduated from Capac High School in June 2012. Next month, nearly 10 years later, I’ll walk across the stage at OU’s commencement ceremony so President Ora Hirsch Pesovitz can hand me my diploma. In this article, I’ll be sharing details from my personal life and my experiences finishing my undergraduate education over the past decade in hopes that what I have to share will be useful to other people struggling with or considering their return to school.

Like most of you, I grew up in what would be considered a working or middle class family. Neither one of my baby-boomer parents went to college — they both worked hard and long hours providing for the family and didn’t have too much energy left over to instill a-whole-lot about the value of education in me.

Naturally, I wasn’t the best student throughout grade school. I was smart enough, but I never quite understood why I should sit at the dinner table filling out homework packets when I could be playing with my siblings or friends. I graduated high school with a 3.0 GPA and a pretty-good ACT score, without being known as much other than a tall kid with a nice smile who played a couple sports and sang in the choir.

I got accepted to and started at OU in the fall of 2012. I chose this university because it was relatively close to where I grew up and where I was working at the time, and because my older sister Lindsey is a 2008 OU alum. Like I said, my parents didn’t know much about higher education and couldn’t offer much advice, so my plan became to try and do what dear sister Lindsey did. 

For a while the plan went pretty well. Granted, I moved into South Hamlin Hall and had a couple of the worst suite mates imaginable. I could probably write a book about the atrocities against hygiene and the annoyingly-hedonistic behavior that I was subjected to at that time. Still, during the fall semester I performed well enough in my classes while working a full-time job. 

That academic success though was short-lived. By the end of the winter 2013 semester, I’d basically dropped out of OU. I would attribute this to a couple of different factors — the main one being that I just didn’t really have a competent support system in my life. 

Going from high school to college while keeping a job and your grades up is hard enough without people back at home pissing and moaning about how you’re never around anymore or how expensive school is. As a young person, when you’re dealing with that kind of negativity your motivation to succeed can become seriously jeopardized.

Now I’ve never been to a doctor about this, and I don’t mean to in any way diminish the struggles that people have with mental illness, but I would say going into the winter 2013 semester I had entered a pretty serious depression. Between the issues in my personal life, living with less-than-ideal roommates and having received what I consider to this day to have been pretty horrendous advice from the First Year Advising Center, I was ready to call it quits at OU and focus on work.

And that’s what I did. From spring 2013 onward, I was one working son-of-a-gun. Masonry, carpentry, demolition, retail, live music entertainment and fence installation are all part of my illustrious resume. Work was work, but I still wasn’t particularly happy. I had some serious problems in my personal life, nothing that was my fault, but still stuff that I had to deal with and reconcile inside of myself. I needed a way out of the cycle I was caught in. I knew that I needed to do better.

In fall of 2016, I started paying out of pocket to take classes at Oakland Community College (OCC). The folks over there took good care of me, but I still very much had my foot halfway in the door of higher education. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, or really what was even possible. I would take a few courses, then take time off to save up some tuition money and then come back for a few more courses.

I don’t know that there were a ton of particularly earth-shattering developments with me during my OCC years, but one thing that did happen is I got serious about my grades. For the first time in my life, I was pulling in a 4.0 on a regular basis. I don’t know if it was emotional maturity, or if it was the fact that I’d done some God-awful jobs collecting that tuition money, but I sure started doing my homework.

With increased classroom confidence and my new perspective on life I returned to OU for two classes alongside what I was taking at OCC in the winter 2018 semester. Now it would be nice for the narrative here if this return to classrooms in South Foundation Hall was some triumphant shift in my educational journey, but it just wasn’t. 

My personal life was still a nightmare in 2018 and I still really didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my education. So, I finished up my classes that winter and went back to working and dealing with problems at home. At that point I was at a crossroads. I was working two different gigs and making pretty decent money, but I still wasn’t happy. 

In fact, during that time I rarely felt any good at all. I would say there were quite a few stretches where I got about as low as somebody can go before checking out completely. For some reason though, I hung in there and started reevaluating my situation. 

At that point I knew I wanted to write for a living, but damn if there sure isn’t a lot of stigma and baggage attached to that knowledge. My whole life I’d been good at reading and writing, and my whole life I’d been told there are no jobs and I can’t make any money reading and writing. For the winter 2019 semester, I signed up part time for two classes at OU — Intro to Literary Studies and Intro to Journalism and News Writing. I went into those classes determined to have a good time, knowing that all I had to lose was everything.

For the first time I was studying subjects that I genuinely enjoyed. And that was definitely a step in the right direction, but I still wasn’t quite ready to fully commit to my education. Something was still stopping me from putting my foot the rest of the way through the door. So I finished up my classes that spring and went back to installing fences full time with no intention of taking classes in the fall. 

Fortunately for me, installing fences that summer went absolutely terribly. I worked a ton of hours, got jerked around on pay by a sleazy boss and ended up throwing my back out on three separate occasions, the last of which was so severe I was forced to go to the emergency room. 

The doctor there prescribed me an opioid, a muscle relaxer and Ibuprofen 800. I left the hospital, got home at noon, ate some macaroni and cheese, took my pills as prescribed, fell asleep and didn’t wake up until 3:30 p.m. the next day. I slept for about 27 hours straight. That’s modern medicine for you. 

Now it is my opinion that pain, physical or emotional or both, greatly inform the decisions we make. I’ve been in pain my entire adult life. Not just because of the aforementioned personal problems, but also because I got hit by a car in summer 2013. I was standing in a parking lot and somebody drilled me. I got a tilted pelvis and twisted up lumbar spine from the ordeal, and the driver got to flee in their black GMC Yukon while I was writhing around on the pavement.

So pain has certainly affected me, still I’d never had my decisions informed by it quite the way they were following that 27-hour nap. During that chemically-induced slumber, I had the most vivid dream I’ve had in my life, in which I hit the road in my blue 2005 Toyota Highlander and started driving to Alaska.

In the dream I got on I-75, drove up through the U.P. and eventually into Canada. I was cruising through the Rocky Mountains, rolling up and down roads with snow-capped peaks on either side of the guardrails. It just wasn’t like other dreams. 

Every detail was so concrete. I remember the smells of the places I would stop at, what songs I put on the radio, changing clothes, switching between sunglasses and regular glasses and magnificent seas of cedar trees stretching for miles and miles alongside the road. To this day, there are times that I have to remind myself that I didn’t actually drive to Alaska.

The dream ended at a gas station just on the other side of the Canada/Alaska border. I was pumping gas when an old man walked up with an Alaskan Malamute pup on a leash. I bent down to pet the dog and it turned into a bull elk and leapt up the mountain next to where we were standing. It stood on top of a ridge, turned back and looked at me and the old man and then disappeared over the ridge. Then I woke up.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with my experience getting an education. The truth is I’m really not too sure, but for whatever reason when I woke from that dream the first thing I did was hop on my laptop and register to take four classes in winter 2020. I was heading into my first semester as a full-time student at OU since winter 2013. I was back all the way in on my education and it felt good.

The real turning point in my life occurred in 2020. The winter 2020 semester was awesome for me. I was studying English and journalism, and I ended up getting to take my first creative writing workshop at OU. I was having a blast with my schoolwork and then COVID-19 set in.

I don’t need to do a recap of why 2020 sucked, you all lived through it just like I did. I would guess I was probably about as miserable as anyone during the early months of the pandemic. Amid all the chaos going on, I lost my day job and had a hell of a time trying to get benefits from Michigan’s wonderful Unemployment Agency. 

Despite those issues, I stayed committed to my education and it ended up being a damn-good thing. I decided to do my internship with the Baldwin Center and take Professor Holly Gilbert’s feature writing course that summer because I was unemployed and had nothing better to do. 

That feature writing course ended up being a game changer for me. For the final assignment in that course, I wrote an over-3,000 word article featuring five different campus community members and their thoughts about remote education going into the fall 2020 semester. 

Part of the assignment was that I had to submit the article for publication somewhere, I chose to send it in to the editors of The Post and it ended up landing me a job as Features Editor of this wonderful newspaper. I started working officially for The Post in September 2020, and I was selected to be editor-in-chief a little over seven months later in April 2021. 

Joining this organization was the best possible thing that could have happened for my education. Being an editor gave me important work to focus on during a tremendously difficult time in our lives. I had like-minded peers, people who were passionate about the same things I’m passionate about, to work with and be around. It made all the difference.

And that’s really about it on the story of me coming back and getting this degree after all this time. I stuck it out long enough, let some profoundly-negative experiences lead to positive experiences and eventually I found my people here at OU. 

Next month, I’m going to get to move into the next stage of my life and I’m looking forward to it. So what are my big takeaways, what advice do I have to offer you, after my 10-year odyssey to get a bachelor’s degree? 

First and foremost — don’t ever give up on your life. I know it’s hard. As outlined in this article, I didn’t get to be a “nontraditional senior” because things were going particularly well. I’ve spent much of my adult years with life kicking me in the teeth. It took me years to get straightened out. 

So if you’re feeling down, it’s okay. You’re not alone — we all have bad days. Bad times don’t last forever. Just keep doing your best. Even if you don’t know where you’re headed, as long as you keep moving you will arrive somewhere. Be brave enough to pursue the things you actually care about. Give yourself a chance.

It took me a while to get going. I had heavy psychological baggage. There were people in my life that I counted on, that I needed to be there for me, that just weren’t. That kind of experience wears you out. Coming from what I came from, I never expected anyone to care about what I had going on. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to offer to help me get where I was trying to go, but people did. 

The faculty at this university are excellent. They’re practically miracle workers as far as I’m concerned. They hand fire to cavemen, help us see light in our lives. If you work hard and open yourself to them, opportunities will be there. 

The same goes for your peers in whatever field you’re studying. I know it’s hard as a nontraditional student being a little older than your classmates. It can get lonely, it’s easy to feel out of the loop. And there’s a lot of negative things said about undergraduate students, but in my experience the vast majority of people I’ve studied and worked with who were younger than me have been kind and patient whenever I was a little out of my element.

You shouldn’t shut yourself off from other people. I used to treat OU like it was just an extension of work, where I’d show up and put my time in and hope it’d help me in the long run. My experience improved significantly once I started working for The Post. Being involved in a student organization and serving the campus community provided some much-needed clarity of purpose for me. If you’re feeling a little lost, I’d recommend getting involved on campus.

OU is the only place I’ve been in my life that when I gave more of myself, I received more back in return. The worst I ever felt was during time periods when I knew that I was stuck doing less than I was capable of doing. Coming back to school I was never too worried about a degree, but I knew that I needed an education so I could be a better person. 

I think about the worst thing I ever did was compare myself to other people. Every person’s situation is different. It’s hard when you feel like you should be further ahead in life than you are. I had to make peace with the fact that my life was not like other people’s lives. 

We arrive when we’re meant to. 10 years is a long time, but 10 years is how long it took for me. Besides, if I would have finished up when I was 22, I have no idea what I’d be doing today. Now I’m getting to do work that I love doing. There’s no doubt in my mind that the education I’ve received since coming back to OU has thoroughly prepared me for what I want to do next.

Leaving this university, I’m going to get to pursue opportunities that just a couple years ago seemed almost entirely out of reach. After a lot of time spent in my early twenties doing things for other people, getting an education was something that I was able to do for myself. Because I did all this work, I’m going to be able to do more to help other people. So certainly, it’s all been worth it to me.