May 31, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 59°F


Back to school

In some ways, Hildy Mica is a lot like her fellow students in Ithaca College’s class of 2013. As a second-semester freshman, she already has an academic writing class under her belt and is currently taking a 15-credit course load. Like many exploratory students, her classes are varied in subject matter, from public communication to oil painting.

“I thought when I first came I’d study art because that’s what I’ve always done,” Mica said. “But when I first came to school, I saw more doors opening up to me. … I have possibilities in other areas that I never thought I could have.”

But there are several things that set Mica apart from her academic peers. For one, she’s 48 years old. She’s also married with three grown children.

Mica is not alone in her experience as a “nontraditional student” — the commonly used term for undergraduate students ages 25 and older. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 6.8 million nontraditional students — full-time and part-time — in colleges and universities nationwide. This year, there are 63 nontraditional students at the college, which account for 1 percent of undergraduate enrollment, according to the fall 2009 opening enrollment data from the Office of Institutional Research.

About 19 percent of nontraditional students are college employees. Every benefits-eligible staff or faculty member has an opportunity to take — with a supervisor’s approval — one course a semester tuition-free. Computer science instructor Tricia Edgecomb took Italian 101 before traveling to Italy one summer and said it paid off during her trip. She audited the class, meaning she did not receive a grade or credit for the course and enrolled on a space-available basis.

“This is a fabulous opportunity to learn about a new subject area that very few faculty members take advantage of,” Edgecomb said.

Though Mica is not a college employee, her tuition is covered because her husband, Jim, works as a research specialist in the Office of Admissions. She took out a Stafford Loan to pay for textbooks and supplies, such as her laptop.

The fall 2009 issue of “Lumina Foundation Focus,” a magazine focusing on higher education issues, reported that about the same number of adult students as traditional students qualify for the Pell Grant, the largest federal benefit available to college students.

Students who are 24 years or older are considered financially independent by the U.S. Department of Education. Because they are considered independent, nontraditional students qualify for additional unsubsidized Stafford loans on top of the base amount for all undergraduates — an additional $4,000 for freshmen and sophomores and $5,000 for juniors and seniors. Larry Chambers, director of student financial services, said 23 out of the 37 nontraditional undergraduates at the college who filed the 2009-10 FAFSA receive the Pell grant.

Senior communications management design major Joe Phillips, 39, is a U.S. Army veteran whose tuition is fully covered through his veteran’s benefits. He chose to take advantage of his eligibility for free higher education after he had difficulty turning his military job as a helicopter airframe technician into a lucrative civilian job.

“I realize after all these years that education is something to be valued,” he said. “You realize you don’t want to work in a factory.”

For Mica, college took a backseat to other responsibilities. She married her first husband right after high school, helped put him through college and raised their family.

“It was always somebody else’s turn,” Mica said.

Coincidentally, her “turn” comes at the same time as her youngest daughter, Mary Kelleher, a sophomore at SUNY Oneonta. Mica said the two tease each other about grades and have agreed to attend each other’s parent weekends.

“We go on campus together, and everyone assumes she’s the student,” Mica said.

Mica said she faces small struggles — such as lugging a 20-pound backpack across campus four times a day — that don’t pose challenges for most young students. She said walking into new classes at the beginning of the semester was intimidating, especially when students mistook her for a professor. But now Mica said she’s amazed at the support other students offer.

“Rather than being stared at and shuffled off into a corner, students are talking with me,” she said. “It’s OK that I’m going to school now, and I didn’t when I was younger.”

Marella Feltrin-Morris, assistant professor of modern languages and literatures, said she has had at least one nontraditional student in class every semester in her 10 years at the college. She said adults boost the energy level of the class.

“It’s beneficial to them, but it’s also beneficial to the rest of the class,” she said. “[The class] sees somebody who doesn’t have to be in the class, but they really enjoy being there.”

Mica said she recognizes when she contributes a lot in class and professors sometimes ask for other students to speak up.

“I wouldn’t have argued with professors as much,” she said. “I wouldn’t have raised my hand as much. I would have tried to learn what they wanted me to learn, how they wanted me to learn it.”

Through her nontraditional approach to college, Mica said she hopes to show others — including her 21-year-old son, Brendan, who plans to return to college next semester after taking time off — that it’s never too late to better themselves.

“Don’t lock yourself into a path and say that there isn’t anything other than this path,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to change directions.”