Feature: WOU Services Provide Support for Non-Traditional Students

For the next three weeks, we will be highlighting services that are tailored to three specific audiences: nontraditional students (today), veterans (Nov. 9) and transfer students (Nov. 15). There is a lot of overlap within these three groups, of course, so readers may qualify for multiple resources.

The official Western Oregon University definition of a non-traditional student is one who is older than 25, has dependents or had taken a break from higher education. Although the majority of WOU students arrive here straight from high school, others have a little more life experience under their belts.

Veronica Villarreal ’18 is a non-traditional student. She spent nine years working in the banking industry before deciding she wanted to expand her horizon. At 32, she’s about 10 years older than other seniors, but she believes that gives her an advantage.

“My age does help in many different aspects,” the psychology major said. “Personally, I feel like I have an appreciation for school that I did not have when I was 18 years old. I think it helps in leadership in that I have been exposed to different situations so I can adapt more easily.”

Villarreal is involved with the alternative break program hosted by Service Learning and Career Development. She’s headed to Costa Rica in December as a team member, then Houston in the spring as a team leader. She seems to have found a home in SLCD, though she said it took her a while to get involved after arriving at WOU as a junior. Once she did, things changed for her.

“At first, I didn’t really feel comfortable reaching out,” she explained. “But after I started reaching out more in my senior year, I was able to contact a professor in the psychology department who is interested in starting a study. So we are working on that. My goals (of doing research as an undergrad) are coming true. That’s what happens when you reach out.”

WOU offers a range of services targeted to non-traditional students and their particular set of needs. Villarreal said she learned about a lot of them during TSOAR, the new student orientation that happens each summer. She didn’t end up taking advantage of many of them, but she said she appreciates that they are available.

“I get emails all the time about services I can use,” she said. Although she lives in Keizer and commutes to school, she’s aware some non-traditional students choose family housing to eliminate the need to drive.

Chris Kempton, the University Housing office manager, said the vast majority of WOU’s 56 family housing units are rented by non-traditional students and their families. Students can choose to live in the Alder View Townhomes or the Knox Street Apartments, and the apartment managers work hard to line up social events or additional programming to support residents.

“The price is right and the sense of community there is strong,” Kempton said. “Students feel comfortable and safe there. I’d say our average stay is two to three years.”

Students who are parents of children ages 30 months to 6 years can take them to TRI’s Child Development Center and may qualify for financial assistance to help pay for the child care. That means non-traditional students with families can get housing, child care and a career-focused education all within a few campus blocks.

In addition to housing and child care, the university had designated a Student Engagement coordinator, John Wilkins, who specializes in helping non-traditional students succeed. There’s also a peer adviser, currently Jami Collar, who handles programming and fields resource questions. Collar is 35 and earning her bachelor’s degree after many years working in her family’s grocery business.

Collar can often be found downstairs in the Werner University Center, which is where the dedicated non-traditional student lounge is located. The room contains communal computers, study space, a small kitchenette and personal storage lockers, among other features. The inviting space is functional and gets a steady stream of users each day.

“A lot us have different lives,” she said. “Some of us have families. A lot of us commute. I started promoting events everywhere I could just to get people involved, even though we are all going different directions all the time. I asked people, ‘What do you want to see down here? What types of things would you go to.”

Collar keeps the non-traditional student Facebook page updated with tips and event notices. In the past she’s scheduled educational sessions in cooperation with SLCD or Financial Aid. During new student week, Wilkins said, there’s a session on the first day that showcases campus resources for non-traditional students. She said she’s not shy about approaching other students in class who seem as though they might be non-trad to tell them about the community space in the WUC.

“When I find out they meet one of the three requirements, I highlight the non-trad lounge,” she said. “I tell them ‘This is for us. This is for you to come down and build a community.’ I’ve seen people with kids on campus who don’t know there’s any place to go. I tell our regulars ‘Let people know. If you know people who meet these requirements, make sure they know they can come in here. That’s what it’s for.”

Moving into the future, Collar and Wilkins plan to revive the non-trad newsletter and would like to create a group-specific YouTube page where programming sessions could air for students who were not able to attend. Collar likes to cooperate with other departments, so she wants to schedule events to let students know about free counseling services at the Student Health and Counseling Center or have an evening where students who plan to continue to grad school can learn about studying for and taking the GRE.

In the meantime, both Collar and Villarreal advise prospective, incoming or current non-traditional students to be proactive about getting involved with their peers in the WOU community.

“I’d advise people to reach out,” said Villarreal. “They should know there are resources. They should contact their advisers. This school is really good in that they want to help us succeed. You just have to reach out to find them.”

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