In August Elon University welcomed 1,553 freshmen onto campus to begin the four years of their undergraduate career. While the majority of students on campus are between the ages of 18-22, among them are “nontraditional” students hoping to obtain a degree and better their lives. Nontraditional students — students over the age of 25 — only make up 1 percent of the Elon student body, though exact numbers were not available through Elon University admissions.
These are students who often have their own families and responsibilities, but have made the decision to come back to school in hopes of reaching a brighter future. But despite their best efforts, some of these students are finding it hard to feel welcomed as part of the Elon community.
Jerlene Harris, 34, is a single mother living in east Burlington. After taking classes down the road at Alamance Community College and receiving her associates degree, she was encouraged to consider enrolling at Elon and work toward a bachelor’s degree. Harris questioned if she could picture herself as an Elon student.
“First of all, I couldn’t afford it,” she said. “Second, I wouldn’t mesh and third, I couldn’t afford it.”
Like many Elon students, Harris applied for Financial Aid, scholarships and, inevitably, loans after being accepted and deciding it was worth a shot. Elon’s campus is minutes away from Harris’ home and her son’s school, making the choice a no-brainer for the sake of convenience.
Harris is pursuing a Human Services degree in hopes of becoming a source and advocate for parents and care-takers in the Alamance area taking care of loved ones with disabilities. Harris’ son, who is now 12 was diagnosed with Autism shortly before turning 4, making Harris acutely aware of the lack of services available for children with disabilities.
“I was very mindful of if the financial implications of going back to school would outweigh the benefits of me getting to something that is going to be an amazing career opportunity to not only help others who’ve been in my shoes, but also do something that I know I am going to enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “Realizing it is not something I am going to get rich off of, but I have a joy for.”
Harris was told there would be support for students “like her” once she arrived on campus, but was taken aback to find that wasn’t the case.
“Once that happened I had to start figuring out my own way, and it became very difficult to navigate through a lot of the unknown stuff,” she said. “Because anytime I tried to reach out to different departments around campus no one knew how to help me because they had never dealt with a student like me.”
Harris wishes there was more flexibility available such as more online courses, which she has suggested since enrolling last fall.
“But I understand they have their whole philosophy of how they want everyone to have this ‘Elon experience,’” she said. “But what is that? What does that mean? Who is that supposed to be geared toward, because apparently it’s not geared toward me. If that was the case, I would feel more welcomed, but I don’t.”
Harris has felt singled out by both students and professors in her class for both her age and differing life experience. She remembers a time when a professor suggested she could add something to a conversation based on where she lived — Harris was shocked.
“When I get a comment of, ‘Hey Jerlene would know because she lives over in east Burlington, she would know all about that,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Excuse me? Why would you feel the need to say that?’ Just because I live in a predominately black and Hispanic area I should know what the people are dealing with over in that area I should know all of that because I live there.”
Despite her perseverance, Harris can’t escape one reoccurring question in her mind: “Why am I here?”
Isaac Monyongai has also made the decision to join Elon’s predominately younger student body as a student to revisit a subject that was once his career. The Liberia- native moved to the United States more than five years ago. He spent his adult life working for various newspapers as an investigative journalist. He started at the Liberian Observer, which was eventually shut down by the government because of their political reporting.
“Journalists do not have fixed salaries in Liberia,” he said. “When I was working, my monthly salary was about $10, which is about 500 Liberian dollars. That gave rise to ethical issues, and independent journalists were drifting into doing public relations for companies just to live, just to survive. I didn’t do that though, I stood my ground.”
He arrived in the United States in 2012, after receiving a visa through the U.S. Government’s lottery system that provides Africans with visas to enter the country as legal immigrants.
“By September, I got into the labor sectors of the country,” he said. “I began to work. That was not what I was thinking of, but to live here is to work for yourself and be able to sustain yourself.”
After a few months working jobs that didn’t spark any interest past a paycheck, a friend suggested he search Elon’s website for any job openings. He applied to work for Environmental Services and was accepted and assigned to the Danieley neighborhood. Once he was given a full-time position, Menyongai was able to take advantage of Elon’s tuition revision program which allows full time employees to take two classes a semester for free. For Menyongai, who wants to work toward a full degree, two classes a semester means it will take more than four years to get his Bachelor’s degree.
“It takes a long time, you have to be patient. That is my dream, I have to go to school to advance myself.”
Menyongai hopes to graduate with a degree in journalism, despite his initial hesitance to step back into the field that caused him much strife in years past.
“I suffered so much in journalism, I felt like there was nothing good in journalism,” he said. “I wanted to erase that, so I wanted to do environmental studies — that was my first thought.”
When Menyongai first arrived in North Carolina, he was taking classes at Guilford Technical Community College in Greensboro, which he found to be too difficult. After getting the job at Elon he looked into transferring his credits and continuing his studies closer to work. Since starting as a student at Elon, he has been enjoying his classes and is excited to eventually graduate and hopefully work for a media company.
“I love being with the young people in the class,” he said. “I’m the oldest in the class but I’m not bothered by that.”
Sandra Reid, lecturer in Human Service studies and former professor to Harris thinks having nontraditional students in the classroom helps students gain a larger perspective.
“They have life experience and they’re able to integrate those experiences in with the materials that we’re learning and hopefully it helps with application,” Reid said.
Harris says she has had good experiences in classes, and has found professors she truly bonds with and relates to. But with her continuous struggle to feel supported academically the same question consumes her own Elon experience: “Why am I here?”