I had a traditional college experience, graduating from high school in June and moving into a high-rise dorm on a university campus that August. I graduated after four years of classes, sorority life and an exciting senior year on a steering committee well-known for running a famous bicycle race. My summer jobs during college included bank teller, shopkeeper, babysitter and house cleaner with my earnings used for spending money through the school years.
I stayed to pursue a master’s degree in College Student Personnel Administration where I learned from a professor the importance of seeing college students as whole persons—not just tuition dollars, seats filled in classrooms or beds in dormitories. She emphasized college was far from a “one size fits all” experience, and the importance of acknowledging diversity and recognizing the social and emotional needs of students.
My first experience with adult learners came from my family. My three older sisters were all married by the time I was 12 years old. My sister Jane had interrupted her college experience to marry and start a family. When her two sons were teenagers, her desire to return to college was strong, and she was happy to see that Indiana State—where she began college—opened its campus in Evansville (ISUE). It offered her the chance to finish the degree she'd begun many years earlier. Starting slowly with general education classes, she took one night class. She could maintain her roles as mother and farm wife and still work toward a degree. She knew she would have to pay all college expenses and began working part-time in sales and clerical work to cover tuition, books, gas, etc.
Jane, then in her 30s, worried she wouldn't succeed because of the time elapsed since her last college class. Her years as a 4-H leader, PTA president and Junior League member, however, brought experience in volunteerism, leadership and communications that gave her a strong advantage in every class. One class assignment involved creating a survey and making phone calls to gather opinions and data. Jane later turned this classroom exercise into a 22-year career in marketing research after graduating from Indiana’s newest university in 1986—the University of Southern Indiana.
Today, there is no USI alum prouder than my sister Jane. Her college journey was much more difficult than my traditional experience, and her story continues to inspire me. I have worked with adult learners for over 20 years, helping them navigate college classes toward graduation. I know that many face challenges of limited time and limited funds and often do not get support from family and co-workers as they juggle time commitments and competing priorities.
Nevertheless, they thrive. Just as Jane found value in her life experiences in leadership and volunteerism, many adult students bring strengths and motives that traditional students often lack.
1. Adult learners know exactly why they are in college and have specific goals—often to enhance career opportunities.
2. Adult learners know how to set priorities, manage time and other resources to reach their goals.
3. Adult learners can integrate classroom learning with lived experience from family, career and community activities.
4. Adult learners rarely make excuses and blame others for their failings, rather they attend class, participate in discussions and meet assignment deadlines.
My career in higher education has rewarded me with the opportunity to work with adults like my sister, seeing them survive and thrive at USI. Through it all, I never lost sight of the fact that adult learners are “whole persons” with life stories, challenges, goals and grit.