Back at It

Students’ experiences returning to UH Hilo as “non-traditional”

Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser
Photographer Kevianna Adams
Graphic Designer Leah Wyzykowski

graphic image of backpacks full of books

No two students walk the same path to obtaining a university degree. Whether it’s because of financial complications, a new member of the family, a needy member of the family, a call of duty, or a change in interests, some stray from the traditional four-year route and end up returning to college later in life.

Roughly 34 percent of students pursuing an undergraduate degree at UH Hilo are over the age of 25, according to the University of Hawaiʻi Institutional Research Office’s census data from Spring Semester 2019, and categorized as “non-traditional” by the industry’s standard.

Kainoa Ariola , UH Hilo’s Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, states that these numbers focus on two specific populations: transfers, primarily from Hawaiʻi Community College, and returning adults. Ariola says that UH Hilo’s ʻOpihi program began outreach for returning adults in spring 2018 in order “to see if they might be interested in returning and to help them with re-enrolling at UH Hilo.”

“Once admitted,” Ariola continues, “they are assigned to a returning student concierge who helps them connect to campus resources and ensure their success. The university will continue to seek out additional resources to support non-traditional students.”

In order to highlight this significant and, at times, underrepresented population of UH Hilo’s student body, Ke Kalahea asked several students to share their experiences returning to college after being away.

Melissa Ferguson

“At 39, I went back and got my associate’s degree in gender studies and psychology, so I decided later in my life to go back to school. My children at the time were young and my husband was actually sick, so it was more convenient for me to adjust my schedule around them so I could meet their needs. It’s been really powerful for me too because I have a different perspective from the younger generations. There’s a completely different political climate we’re in, and so it’s really interesting to learn from the younger generation, as well as them learning from me about how drastically different things are from when I graduated high school in 1995. It’s been really positive for me; as a woman, I think there’s a tendency to get wrapped up in how you are as a mother or as a wife. It’s really nice to come back and find who I am. I’ve found that I’m really passionate about social issues, so I came to work for the Women’s Center.”

Markus Pharaoh

“I came back to school because you can’t really get too far in your dreams in this society without some kind of degree. I’m trying to push myself to just finish it now at 31 years old. This school in particular I chose because it’s the only university on this island. As far as the experience, I won’t lie; it’s been difficult. I speak my mind a lot more than I used to, and I think if I was here years ago, I wouldn’t have spoken up about things and it would have been easier to just go with the flow. But nowadays I got something to add every time a teacher has something to argue with. Chomsky talks about how in our society, we have the illusion of freedom but the system is set up in the way so that there’s already a framework and only so much is allowed within that. If you go outside of it, it’s considered too much. I always go too far over that edge.”

Caitlin Santiago

“I was set to graduate in 2015 but got pregnant and put my education on hold to focus on my family. So most of my student life was a more ‘traditional’ course. It is very different coming back to finish my last semester as a mother and wife, and quite the adjustment after being a stay-at-home mom for three years. It can be difficult to balance home and school, especially when trying to complete an assignment with two small monkeys climbing on me at all times. I am very blessed to have a supportive husband and would not be able to complete my degree without his help. One thing that makes being in school difficult for me is the lack of online courses available at UH Hilo; it can be somewhat difficult to break away from mom-life to attend classes on campus. The wonderful thing about UH Hilo is that it is a more intimate setting than a larger university, so when I bring my small children to campus everyone is excited to see them, and they are welcomed in to offices and even classrooms.”

Bethanyjacqueline Kiley

I first started at HCC back in 2008 and at that time my son was much, much younger, a toddler. Now that I have transferred up to UH Hilo, and have been here for three years, I can easily conclude that I am lucky to have the college community here that we do. There are many times, during sick season and when our spring breaks don't line up to the grade school's, that I have to bring my son with me to school. And not only does he love it, but everyone is really cool about having him there. So far at least.

When he was younger, there wasn't an option for day care on either campus. The day care located on HCC campus he ended up attending for pre-school, but it costs money beyond tuition, which was difficult. And it only has a certain amount of slots available. As far as class times, I do work a full-time job at night. So I have missed some great classes that are offered at a time I can't make. And then the same class won't be offered for another year or more. As I am about to graduate, that makes me sad that I am missing out on those opportunities pertaining to strengthening my degree. But I guess it's a part of going to UH Hilo, with smaller departments, unavailable to offer the classes over and over consecutively. It's also just a part of being a non-traditional student, and having more than one or two obligations besides school, homework, and studying for the next exam.

I think, as this campus does have a high rate of non-traditional students, it would be helpful for the administration to think about what it might be able to adequately offer those students, not only making attending classes a more feasible prospect, but also to possibly give incentive to future non-traditional students to make attending UH Hilo a more feasible idea. This is especially important in today's economy where people might not have had the chance to attend UH at a traditional age and are trying to make it work today.”