Orientation 101

How one college dean helps adult students get their bearings going back to school

by Deborah Wright

hands holding a compass and an open map
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

My career in higher education has focused primarily on non-traditional adult students. Unlike most people, when I close my eyes and think of a college student, I see the single mother, the veteran, and the full-time employee (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018). And while the definition of who an adult student is – financially independent, attending school part-time, employed full-time or someone who just delayed postsecondary education (Nadworny, 2018) – there are a few things that I have observed that all adult students have in common.

The first, and perhaps the most significant is that returning to school for the non-traditional student is a big deal! It is not enough that they have to juggle work schedules, forfeit activities that are important to their family life, delegate personal and professional responsibilities and add something as daunting as school work to their already hectic schedules; it is also about the idea of being a student – again!

Over the years, at every institution where I have worked, I have introduced an orientation class or process to help students acclimate back into college and to prepare them to be successful in doing so. The following tips are what I found helpful to cover in an orientation that is beneficial for the students:

  • Address the fears that adults have in returning to school. Usually this is not their first attempt at completing a degree program. The idea of failure is often front and center when they make the decision to return to school. Becton Loveless, in her online article entitled Facing Your Fears of Returning to School as an Adult, observes those fears also include cost, the time commitment, and how adults feel about attending classes with younger students.
  • Acknowledge what students do know and the knowledge that they bring to the classroom today. The work experience that adult learners bring to class is a valuable addition to the course learning outcomes and in a diverse classroom can be beneficial to the younger students who need a practical example to better understand a book theory.
  • Cover the basics for returning students. As slowly as many academics and non-academics feel that change occurs in higher education, it can still be a whole new world for students who have been out of the classroom for several years. Topics like time management, study habits, navigating library resources and even the specifics of the different roles that the various departments and support offices will play in their college experience, will help to alleviate frustrations and challenges in those first weeks.
  • Encourage relationships and understand the unique concerns that adult students have. At least 1 in 5 students is at least 30 years old. Students can find comfort in knowing they are not the only ones returning to school at “their age”. Encouraging students to engage with their faculty, peers and the college community can help to establish a feeling of belonging.
  • Insist that students establish a network of people who will support their efforts to return to school. I caution students to be careful who they share their dreams with because not everyone will encourage them in completing their education. Often people have their own fears and will see the student’s success as somehow reflective of their own failures or lack of motivation. However, the right people can be both the carrot and the stick as students go through the ups and downs of their academic challenges.

I commend the post-traditional students who have moved from thinking about returning to school to actually doing it. It is a big decision and schools like Wentworth, who have established a college (College of Professional and Continuing Education) specifically for part-time students who are returning to get a degree or training to enhance their career, acknowledge your challenges and your experience and value what you bring to our college community.

DEBORAH WRIGHT is the Dean of the College of Professional and Continuing Education at Wentworth Institute of Technology. She has over 25 years of experience in adult learning and has worked in higher education, corporate training and business consulting. Prior to joining Wentworth, Wright was the Director of the Center for Adult Learning at Lesley University. She holds an MBA from the University of Phoenix and a BFA from the California Institute of Art. She is currently completing her PhD  in Global Leadership at Indiana Tech University.

For further reading:

Bluemenstyk, G. (2018). The adult student – the population colleges-and the nation-can’t afford to ignore. Washington, DC: The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Loveless, B. (2018). Facing your fears of returning to school as an adult. Retrieved September 7, 2018, from Education Corner – Education That Matters website:  https://www.educationcorner.com/fear-of-returning-to-school.html

Nadworny, E. (2018, September 4). Today’s college students aren’t who you think they are. Retrieved September 7, 2018, from NPR- changing face of college website:        https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/09/04/638561407/todays-college-students-arent-who-you-think-they-are



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