January 20, 2018

5 No-apology tips for non-traditional students

5 No-apology tips for non-traditional students - photo copyright 2012 Rick Sherrell

I was one and maybe you are, too: A student who is 30, 40, 50, and even 60 and beyond!

Like many non-trad students, I did not intend to be “older” in college. But my parents, who were not college educated, did not make provisions for my education. After losing a parent early, my life took a different vocational path for many years until I decided that I wanted to teach.

Because I relate so intimately to non-traditional students, I thought about what communication lessons relate specifically to our incredible, dedicated population. Here’s where I landed:

1. Never, ever, ever, ever be afraid to talk to the prof about struggles you are having!

Yes, I was reticent at times to speak in class around my younger counterparts, but outside of class? I was very outspoken, going to my profs whenever I was confused or when I felt frustrated about an exam or class policy (Truth be told, I was probably a bit of a pain in the ass, but willing to own that title). As a prof, I know that a bunch of non-trads feel embarrassed about their confusion. Or, they say, “I’m sorry. I’ve been out of school for a really long time.”

Know that you never have to apologize for your gap in education. In your years away from school, you had important professional experience that is its own type of college! You deserve to emerge confidently from confusion and get the same help as a student who just got out of high school (and is likely just as perplexed as you are!).

So, when you go to your prof, hold your head up and say, “I’m so excited to be back at school after all these years and you know what? I want to make sure I have a solid handle on what I’m doing. I need your help!“

Also, always ask “Will you review work early for me? What deadline should I set for myself in order to make that happen?” and “Will you take another look if I’m still unsure?“

2. Share your wisdom and experience in class!

Some non-trad students worry about talking too much in class, so they say little. Other non-trad students ask if it’s okay to talk in class (It’s true!). As a prof, I’m alone on a ledge sometimes, particularly when I ask a question and… silence… dead silence. Your words are appreciated by faculty and, whether traditional students realize it or not, they have a lot to learn from your articulateness, your background, and your ideas. Speak up and give lots of life/work examples. You never know when your words may serve as a change agent for another student in class. A former non-trad student who was already an EMT (pursuing a nursing degree) gave career advice to a 20-something student who wanted to know the in’s and out’s of being an EMT. I have seen numerous trad-non-trad relationships start in class… and linger as a mentorship or friendship far beyond the term.

3. If you are a talker, engage the class community.

I have had chatty non-trad students come to me privately and say, “I don’t want to take over the class, so if I’m talking too much, please let me know.” Just for the record, I’ve never told a non-trad student that they’re talking too much–what they’re saying is typically too rich and priceless to mute! In fact, when a non-trad student shares their thoughts and asks an open-ended question like, “What do the rest of you think?”, traditional students sometimes feel less intimidated responding to a fellow student.

4. It’s okay to challenge what you don’t feel is right.

Some non-traditional students are so respectful of a prof’s position/title that they don’t think they should challenge anything. I think many of my colleagues would agree that we’re in the wrong profession if we can’t handle a little constructive criticism over content or policies. So, if you are uncomfortable about a grade you received, are concerned about other students in class (yes, I have had non-trad students bothered by other students texting, trolling FB, etc. during class), or vastly disagree with the material, use your “I” language and discuss it with your prof. No need to apologize or qualify your thoughts.

5. Carry your own load; let other students carry theirs.

I have seen far too many non-trad students pick up slack on a group project or assist a struggling student with emotional or academic needs… sometimes far beyond what’s reasonable. Even when non-trad students are staunch non-enablers of their own kids, they find a soft spot for another young classmate and jump right in to help.

Remember, your work ethic and maturity has developed; the work ethic and maturity of certain traditional students is developing. If you find yourself shouldering others’ academic or personal problems, the greatest gift you can give them, in addition to your kind ear, is a pathway to the resources that can help them i.e., the professor, counseling services, educational advising, etc.

If the situation feels unbalanced, go tell the prof, “I have concerns about the workflow in my group and I need to resist taking on the project myself.” It’s her job to manage these types of issues.

So, my non-traditional comrades, I salute every single one of you. You are a model to your friends, families, and traditional students in ways that you probably don’t realize.

You’ve honed your experienced, powerful voice. Now use it to propel your education.


About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. Being a nontraditional student was hard, even for me when I went back to college at 32 years old. I did share my wisdom and even an opposing opinion with the professor on occasion. They didn’t like that. Also, when I was going through a divorce during my last year of college, I had to share that with the professors because my assignments were late and my grades had started to slip. I did finally graduate with a B.A. in Communications. It was worth it.

  2. As a non-traditional student myself, I find these tips to be useful and encouraging. The only one I would disagree with is the part about group projects. Since returning to college, I have noticed the trend toward group projects in the classroom setting. I understand the reasoning behind this, but I have found that I often must pick up the slack for the other students in my group. The reason for this, I believe, is that I care a LOT more about my grade than the average undergrad. And I am juggling a job, full time classes, and a family – I can’t afford to wait until the last minute and then be up at 2 a.m. finishing a project. The only way for me to finish in a timely manner and get an A is to pull most of the weight myself. I know this doesn’t help the traditional students – but I’m trying to get into med school, and can’t risk a bad grade.

    Professors could help a lot by setting expectations and having groups work out a learning contract at the beginning of the assignment – with a leader, deadlines, and individual responsibilities. That way, students who don’t do their fair share can be graded accordingly without punishing the entire group.

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