‘Nontraditional student’ is a common and modern term in academia, referring to anyone with an unusual or atypical path to a college degree. As more people take time after high school to work and save money, or career change and return to school for another degree, or start a family, or any number of other situations, it’s becoming more common for a university’s student population to consist of students that aren’t just 18-22 years old, living in dorms, and seeking the “traditional” college experience. I’ve always found this term inherently flawed because it indicates that there is such a thing as a ‘traditional’ student. My path as a veteran student was far from traditional, and I’m proud of where it’s led me. My undergraduate experience at the University of Michigan has shown me just how valuable the ‘nontraditional’ path can be, not just for my own benefit, but for others as well.

I graduated from high school in 2008, and I had no idea what to do with my life, what I ‘wanted to be when I grew up,’ or even how to pay for college. I hadn’t been a very strong student in math or science and I didn’t feel passionate about any specific field of study, so I was skeptical about pursuing a full-time education. I was lucky to have parents who thought I should find out what I wanted before committing to school or student loans. After working a few jobs and traveling for a year, I met with a US Coast Guard recruiter and learned about the benefits of joining the military, one of which is the GI Bill, and I was sold on the idea of turning my gap year into six. I needed direction, purpose, and as my mom would probably confirm, a little bit of discipline. 

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Midgett in 2009. Official Coast Guard photo by PA2 Zac Crawford.

I left for boot camp right after New Years’ in 2011, and a few months later I arrived at my first unit, a 378-foot long ship based out of Seattle, WA. We spent most of the year circling the Pacific, north into the Bering Sea and then south to the coast of Colombia, Panama, and Central America, with missions ranging from fisheries inspections to drug interdiction. The ship was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen. It was a behemoth of steel, a maze of passageways, a web of pipes and cables. I worked in the engine room, a three-story jungle gym of engines, boilers, generators, and other machines that kept the ship alive (and the sailors, too). My job entailed monitoring equipment, fixing mechanical problems, and conducting maintenance on systems all over the ship, and being covered in grease or smelling like fuel 24/7. It was in this wonder of an engine room where I fell in love with science again. 

Most of my job required learning about machinery, everything from hydraulics to electrical systems to propulsion engines. In order to learn the systems better through teaching them to others, I developed a nightly class for new sailors, with topics such as the firemain pump and water line system and the compressed air network. I asked for more responsibility that would force me to learn something new, and I repeatedly stepped out of my comfort zone. Through gaining an understanding of different machinery and sharing that knowledge with others, I rediscovered a love for learning and teaching. 

Lydia working in the engine room of the USCGC Midgett in 2011, using an acetelyne torch to loosen a shaft hub.

I slowly realized that I wanted to pursue a degree and a career outside the military. I had felt like I wasn’t strong enough with math or science, but my experience on the ship showed me that I had a stronger aptitude than I’d thought. I started to take part-time classes while I was still on active duty, chipping away at prerequisites and general requirements. In 2017, I completed my enlistment and moved to Michigan, attending the local community college for a year and finally transferring to the University of Michigan in Winter 2018. 

When I arrived at UM, I felt pretty out of place. As an undergraduate who was about ten years older than most other students, it was hard to get involved with any student groups or connect with fellow classmates. Most of us ‘nontraditional’ students live off campus, have jobs or homes or families, and are at varying stages of life depending on where our paths have led us. There is great diversity within the ‘nontraditional’ population: some students are veterans, returning to school to utilize education benefits; some are parents seeking better careers; some are first-generation students who had to save money for years before being able to attend. Regardless of our backgrounds, entering a traditional university program and adjusting to a new environment is challenging. Each student may find different ways to settle into student life, whether it is through a student organization, a part-time job, or just a strong support network. My own transition to UM was marked by financial stress after leaving the military, feeling displaced in a new environment, and a sense of mourning for my life in the Coast Guard. It was about a year before I got involved with the student veteran organization and started to feel like myself again. 

Through this student org, and through my job as an advisor for veteran students, I’ve been able to connect with dozens of students with military connections. While we all come from different branches, socioeconomic backgrounds, and identities, we all share an experience of service prior to our lives as students. I made friends with people who understood my weird acronyms and unusually dark sense of humor, and it changed my experience at UM completely. I started spending more time on campus, being more social in class, and exploring more of what UM has to offer. 

My newfound perspective on student life not only changed my social circle, but also helped me recognize the value of our military careers and the benefits of being an older student.  Many of us have clear career goals, having worked various jobs in the military and slowly honed in on something we loved to do. Some student veterans have jobs in place for post-graduation plans, arrangements made before even starting a degree. We all have some sense of leadership, determination, communication, and respect. 

Through sharing our stories and experiences, we narrow the gap between who we are and who others assume us to be.

As I started to step outside of my comfort zone again, making friends with younger classmates and sharing my stories, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed those relationships. I’ve been asked for relationship advice, help looking for apartments, even asked for help removing splinters during field trips. And at least once per semester, I am mistaken for the GSI of a course and asked for help. But I’ve also learned a lot from ‘traditional’ students; I learned how to adjust to the college environment, handy study tactics, how to use various computer programs. Most of all, I’ve learned that the ‘traditional’ students here at UM are anything but; they are as diverse as the rest of us, each bringing something different to the table, each having followed a different path, and each just wanting to succeed. Through sharing our stories and experiences, we narrow the gap between who we are and who others assume us to be. We can increase understanding of just how diverse the student population really is and help each other on the path to graduation. 

I’m now a senior, graduating in December 2020 with a BS in Geology and a minor in Biological Anthropology and applying to graduate schools. I love natural science, our planet, space exploration, and evolution. I wanted an interdisciplinary education, one that would tie the physics and chemistry principles that I learned as mariner to the natural world. Our planet is a living machine, with interlaced parts and life cycles, and I want to understand each piece just as I did in that engine room. 

Lydia in her “natural habitat”: exploring the great outdoors. (Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colo.)

My ‘nontraditional’ path helped me discover something I love doing, meet incredible people, and grow from innumerable experiences. I had worried that I would just be an old undergrad, starting my life over and losing much of the experience I had gained in the Coast Guard. I’ve learned that it’s quite the opposite; that my past life is enriching my education, showing me value in places I didn’t expect to see it, and giving me a clear sense of where I’m going from here. My wish is for fellow students, traditional and nontraditional alike, faculty, and future employers, to understand that nontraditional journeys are just as meaningful; it’s our diversity as a student body that allows each of us to bring something different and valuable to the table, enriching the education experience for everyone. 

Lydia Pinkham is a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Michigan, with a BS in Geology and a minor in Biological Anthropology, pursuing a graduate degree in geology and planetary science. She also serves as the Vice President of UM’s chapter of the Student Veterans of America, a Peer Advisor in the Peer Advisors for Veteran Education program, and as a member of the Board of Directors for Veterans Radio. When she’s not working on schoolwork or organizing her rock collection, she loves to read, knit, and do anything outdoors. You can find Lydia at www.lpinkham.com.

Edited by RMD.