Learning for Life: Non-traditional Schooling Opportunities


When people hear the word “college,” most envision a young, fresh-faced high school graduate strolling around campus with books in hand, eager to be exposed to the world of academia. Little attention is given to other learners—people enrolled in online programs, graduate level programs, or other continuing education programs. But, these programs are more popular than you would think and should not simply be brushed aside as less important than traditional 4-year college experiences. Whether you’re looking to start school for the first time as an adult learner, are going back after several years of real world experience, or are continuing in a specialty program tailored to your field, a bit of research and careful planning will help you feel like the big man on campus.

There are many different programs in the Twin Cities that are specifically tailored to particular groups of students. For people who don’t want or need a campus experience, Capella University offers online bachelor’s, master’s, MBA, and doctoral degrees. William Mitchell College of Law allows students to get the legal education and real-life training they need to be successful lawyers. The University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education offers courses for adult learners who don’t necessarily need another degree but want to continue their education, and the U of M Law School allow students to pursue their legal education.

When searching for the best online school for you, Michael Walsh, Senior Manager of Public Relations at Capella University, notes that “All online universities are not created equally. Just like brick-and-mortar universities, online universities are all unique in their own way. Make sure you research the schools carefully to be sure the have the right program for you, have a strong community of support, and will empower you to achieve your educational goals.” Walsh encourages students to recognize their individual learning styles and choose a school that fits your lifestyle and learning style.

Because Capella is an online institution, there aren’t opportunities for campus community building like other schools. Though there aren’t specific GLBT support resources offered, Walsh states that “Capella is a very inclusive institution and values and supports our students regardless of their sexual orientation.” Capella’s online Career Center includes a resource titled, “Job Search Considerations for Individuals who Identify as LGBT.” One benefit, however, of an online institution is that “students don’t often feel the need to highlight aspects of their personal lives, such as their sexual orientation,” according to Walsh. This allows students to be judged on their ideas and contributions instead of their different backgrounds.

Walsh recognizes that “flexibility is a must” for Capella students because 75% of Capella students are enrolled in master’s or doctoral programs, and the average student is 40 years old. Walsh states, “Our students are people who have worked in the professional world, and truly know the value and importance of a high-quality education, and they demand an education that will directly apply to the workplace and enable them to succeed and advance professionally. Capella prides itself on carefully designing our courses and programs to align with the professional competencies that are needed in the most highly sought-after fields today.”

For people considering law school, Steve Linders, the Assistant Director of Marketing at William Mitchell College of Law, suggests that people “treat the decision to attend law school as a major life decision and purchase.” Because law school is a huge time and financial commitment, it’s important to find the best fit. Linders notes, “Not every law school will be right for every student. A law school should challenge a student and support him or her through a period of what will be tremendous intellectual and personal growth.”

William Mitchell strives to support its students through the very intense process of law school. Linders says, “We work very hard to support students who face life’s unexpected challenges—illness, family emergencies, job loss. Mitchell has a reputation for doing whatever it can to help all students succeed.” William Mitchell also is very supportive of the GLBT community, with the full-time faculty recently passing a resolution opposing the anti-marriage amendment and a continual presence at Pride.

Finally, William Mitchell provides practical legal education that has produced many successful people. Linders notes, “Mitchell was a pioneer in practical legal education long before it was fashionable. It’s a school that offers students opportunities to gain hands-on, real-world experience and see firsthand the positive and lasting impact a lawyer’s work can have on others and communities. We also have a long, rich history of helping people from all backgrounds reach their goals: United States Chief Justice Warren Burger went to Mitchell. So did the first woman appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the first Hmong lawyer in the United States, and Susan Allen, the first openly lesbian American Indian in any state legislature in the country.”

The U of M’s College of Continuing Education program is unique because not only does it include programming for adults who are going back to school to complete a degree or career-related program, but it provides opportunities for lifelong learning, even when diplomas and degrees aren’t the main goal. Janet Pelto, a Transfer Specialist, urges prospective students to “know what’s important to you in selecting a school,” and Susan Svatek (a Program Adviser) adds that you should “understand your options at each school. Your past credits are still valid and can be used in new programs.” More importantly, though, Svatek says,”Know that you can do it; adults have a proven track record of success when coming back to school. Know that you have a lot to offer in the classroom, and faculty will welcome your presence.”

The College of Continuing Education understands the challenges of continuing education as an adult, and the college offers courses in evening and online formats. Students can also access all services by phone or Skype appointments if they are unable to schedule an in-person meeting. Svatek observes, “Adult students’ needs include balancing work and family, overcoming past academic difficulties, finding their place within college life, and financial concerns. The U’s College of Continuing Education has a long history of working with returning adult students to
help them access the U’s diverse academic resources.”

Going back to school may seem overwhelming, but Pelto suggests that students start with just one class to see what the atmosphere is like and how school can be added into a busy schedule. Doing so allows you to focus on the course at hand, and that focus may be beneficial if you aren’t used to school. “If you start with one course, something that you are interested in, you may just be amazed at how well you do.”

The U of M’s Law School also welcomes non-traditional students, helping students navigate their education around child care, elder care, and partners. They even have a group called the Older and Wiser Law Students (OWLS) that provides support and information for non-traditional students. Noelle Noonan, who works in the Dean of Students Office, notes that students with more life experience also bring “invaluable experience and perspective into…the classroom and the law school as a whole,” according to Noonan. She continues, “Your experiences are helping to enrich the legal profession as a whole.”

Though law school may seem daunting in your later years due to the intensity and expense of the program, older students may actually have an advantage due to their life experience. Noonan urges students to “Remember the long-term goal, when you are finished and have your degree, adding to your other skills. Employers are already looking for inherent skills like high EQ (emotional intelligence), self-awareness, and a high level of maturity. Later life students are generally higher and more experienced in those areas.”

Finally, the University of Minnesota provides GLBT support resources for all their students and the community with over 40 GLBT organizations and initiatives. Matthew Antonio Bosch, the GLBTA Programs Office director, says, “Whether you’re returning to finish a degree or starting your first, we create an atmosphere where students feel they can bring their whole selves, get connected, and be who they truly are, without fears of rejection or isolation.”

It’s never too late to finish your degree or start on your educational journey. As Janet Pelto states, “Remember that the things that make you a successful adult, such as being able to manage priorities, solve problems, and even ask questions, are the things that will make you a successful student. Adults who go back to school awaken in ways they never expected.”





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