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“Me, the Traditional Student vs. Me, the Non-traditional Learner”

There are 31 years between my life as a traditional student, at Simmons, and the one that I have today as a non-traditional learner, at Lesley. It is as though I am two distinct people. According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, a student is defined as “an attentive and systematic observer”, whereas to learn means, “to acquire knowledge or skill or a behavioral tendency”. I have come to the realization that apathy and arrogance coupled with mental health issues, led to the demise of Dionne the student.

In 1983, I was so anxious to get away from a hellacious home that I took the geographic cure, to an out of state college, sight unseen. From the start, I became a Biology major. Actually, what I wanted to study was human physiology, microbiology, epidemiology, and subjects related to humans, without the rest of the animal kingdom. That became problematic, as humans are only a fraction of what is studied under the umbrella of Biology. Back then, I did not appreciate the merits of the Humanities, subjects like Art and Philosophy. If a course did not interest me I tuned it out.  Even in the 1980’s, I was responsible for footing my tuition bill, so money should have been a motivator for me to succeed. Unfortunately, it had little if any impact upon me. By junior year, I was in the throes of a nervous breakdown and my grades plummeted. I did not have the wisdom to ask for help. This was a direct trajectory to academic probation. In 1985, I took what was to have been a year’s leave of absence… and never returned.

During that 31-year hiatus, I have seen what life has to offer. I married and divorced, three times. I am an alcoholic in recovery, in 24 hour increments. I fight Bipolar 1 Disorder, Anxiety and PTSD, on a daily basis. But I also had some wins during these years. I have a 17 year old daughter. I worked in healthcare for 25 years, collaborating with medical key opinion leaders across various disease states. I earned a high income, affording me the ability to buy a condo in the metro northwest suburbs of Boston. My daughter is able to attend one of the top public regional high school districts in Massachusetts. I am a burgeoning pastel artist, ironic when you consider that my Faculty Advisor had to twist my arm to take an Art History course back in the 1980’s.

Despite the wins, I always felt something was missing. In the back of my mind, I knew that I had sold myself short. I had reached the pinnacle of my career. In addition, my mental health issues and alcoholism were a noose around my neck. So I decided to streamline my life. I gave up the position with the high salary, perks, and benefits and became my own boss. The next four years were a game-changer. I did an introspective search and realized that I needed credentials to earn professional credibility. Years of experience alone were not going to be enough to carry me in today’s marketplace. I also realized that my chosen career path could not have been more wrong. Having made that discovery, hope was not lost, as I had an opportunity to fix it.

I had spent over ten of years of employment in Medical, Nursing and Pharmacy Continuing Education. Our focus was to provide educational content in line with adult learning principles. When I was charged with educating staff and they wanted to be spectators in the process, I reminded them that, “children learn by viewing, while adults learn by doing”! According to Ralph C. Kennedy, M.Ed., author of, “Applying Principles of Adult Learning, The Key to More Effective Training Programs,” adults tend to be impacted by motivation, interest, values, attitudes, physical and mental abilities, and learning histories. He goes on to say that adults expect to apply that which they have learned and they want to be included in the development and implementation of the material which they are being taught. In another article about what makes adult learners different, “Teaching Nontraditional Adult Students: adult learning theories in practice,” Joseph C. Chen emphasizes that adults think critically and challenge assumptions. In essence, we come to the table having gone to a few more rodeos, something which our younger traditional classmates have yet to experience.

When I made the decision to attend Lesley this spring, although I did not have my finances secured, my mind was locked and loaded.  I knew that I wanted to study Art Therapy, as my goal is to marry my healthcare experiences with humanities to become a clinician who is creative and relatable to clients. Unlike me the student of the 1980s, me the learner from 2016 is proactive and an integral part of the process. I am accountable for my success. My courses are the building blocks to make me a better clinician, not a mere means to an end. Today, I have come to understand that winning academically depends on cultivating relationships with my Advisor, Division Chair, Faculty, Peers, and Support Staff. I must remain teachable, willing to ask for help, open to suggestions and engage in open dialogue. I am coming full circle at almost 51. If I could start over, my traditional years would not have commenced until I was ready to learn!


9 Responses »

  1. Being a nontraditional student was hard, even for me when I went back to college at 32 years old. I did finally graduate with a B.A. in Communications. It was worth it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yay, Dionne! It’s so nice to see you here, and to read such an honest and descriptive account of your journey as a student. It’s so important that we realize when we’re actually “ready to learn” (it’s taken me a while to get there too).

  3. So very proud of you Dionne, all your struggles, trials and tribulations have led you to this journey. Your bravery and strength is and should be an inspiration to many of us. May God continue to bless you as your life’s path continues to grow. Congratulations on being published and I look forward to sharing in your future accomplishments.

  4. Excellent article. There is a lot of courage in there that came through!

  5. Cousin I am proud of the strides you have made the jury through life greatest battle which is ourselves
    I wish you every good thing in your future endeavor
    Much love for life
    Cousin John

  6. Your journey
    Your story
    Serve as building blocks for a strong foundation
    Continue to be your own “superhero”
    Your mind is a wonderful thing to be shared!

  7. Well put! I wish you so much success and happy fulfillment.

  8. As always, I am proud of you. Truthful and well written

  9. What an inspiring story! Thanks for being so courageous and putting yourself out there.
    We are truly the heroes of our own life story.

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