Eighteen-year-old Mailyn is like many other freshman students at Grand Valley State University. She begins her day at 7 a.m. by getting ready in her dorm – quietly, to not wake her roommate. She goes to class, performs in the GVSU marching band’s color guard and heads back to her dorm when her day is done. Having gone to college immediately after high school, Mailyn lives what many would call the “traditional” student experience.
Ryan is also in his first year at Grand Valley, but his day is anything but traditional. He gets up at 3 a.m. to head to his full time job as a shipping coordinator at DeWys Manufacturing. After a couple hours at work, he heads off to campus for his early morning classes, and when his classes are finished, he goes back to work to finish out his workday, and some days even comes back to campus for an evening class. Ryan, 43, is anything but a traditional student, as he goes home after class to his wife at his home in Grand Haven.
Both students share something very nontraditional in common: Ryan and Mailyn are father and daughter. Compared to Mailyn, Ryan would categorize himself as a nontraditional student, as he is older, lives off campus and has a full-time job with a family.
The balance of work, life and school is one of the biggest challenges that Ryan has faced.
A benefit of being a nontraditional, Ryan said, was “being able to get away from the fray of living on campus.” Ryan said another benefit is his life experience, which helps with time management.
While she doesn’t have as much life experience as her dad, Mailyn said the transition from high school to college was easier because she didn’t take any time off in between.
“Learning is hard work,” Mailyn said. “It’s hard enough to take the summer off of school.”
Being a traditional student also comes with its challenges. For Mailyn, having color guard practice four days a week during the football season is a big time commitment on top of a full-time load of school work.
“It’s definitely a lot of hours and practice on your own and even more on game weeks,” Mailyn said.“I’m still in the mindset of school. If I took a year off, I wouldn’t want to do school anymore.”
Cheryl Kotecki, Office Coordinator at the GVSU Center for Adult and Continuing Studies, said the qualities that define a “non-traditional” student are “an adult learner who may be 25 years of age or older; a veteran of the armed forces or active-duty; returning to school after two or more years of a break in education; a person who assumes multiple adult roles, such as a parent, spouse/partner and employee.”
With criteria such as that, the Association of American Colleges & Universities says upwards to 73 percent of college students could be called a nontraditional student.
Ryan says his three daughters were a huge inspiration for him going back to college.
“It’s also something I wanted to do,” Ryan said. “My wife and I started a family young and those priorities took over.”
In addition to being a full-time GVSU student, Ryan comes back to campus every football Saturday as a proud father to watch his daughter Mailyn perform with the color guard.
Both Millers appreciate the unique experience that comes with going to the same college. The shared experience of being students has further strengthened their father-daughter bond.
“We both know what the other is going through, we are both going to school, we are both stressed out,” Mailyn said. “It creates a mutual understanding of stress.”
Although they don’t cross paths on campus often, when Mailyn visits home, she is able to take on the role of peer as she helps her dad with his algebra homework.
“She’s way smarter than me,” Ryan said. “She’s helped me quite a bit.”
Mailyn also walked him to class on his first day of classes their first semester.
“On the first day of class, I saw him walking outside my dorm, and his class is at Lake Michigan Hall and I knew he was in the wrong place,” Mailyn said, smiling. “So I got to walk him to class.”
A personal reflection
The creators of this feature were inspired to tell this unique story because we have all taken different paths to college education. One is right out of high school, lives on campus and is part of organizations on campus, works part time and goes to school full time. Another started out at a community college after high school, lives off campus, works full time and is married; the final member of the team didn’t start the college journey until their mid-twenties, works full time, is married and has kids.
The idea of a traditional student may be a notion of the past, as every student has their own story that doesn’t fit the old time narrative. While students may seem traditional at first, many ways that students approach school in the 21st century is non-traditional at best.
“I think that really now everyone is just a student,” Mailyn said. “Because everyone takes a different path. I think anyone who goes to college is just a student.”
Kayla Sosa, Tyrus Marzean and Faith Erby are students at Grand Valley State University.