Nearly decade of change and progression is cause for celebration in the Division of Lifelong Learning and Community Engagement (LLCE) at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Nontraditional Student Week at UW Oshkosh kicks off Nov. 4 and is aimed at honoring and recognizing adult students on campus. National Nontraditional Student Week is held around the country the same week.
“I think, as a public institution, our mission is to support citizens of the state, and that includes everyone from children through those who want to learn in retirement,” said Karen Heikel, assistant vice chancellor of Lifelong Learning and Community Engagement at UW Oshkosh. “I’ve always appreciated having nontraditional students on campus because they bring added diversity.”
Since the early 2000s, UW Oshkosh has been formally providing resources to the more than 3,000 adult nontraditional students on campus, and the University’s Graduation Project has helped 372 students graduate and has given nontraditional students the opportunity to transition back into school with ease, helping them earn degrees and accomplish their goals.
“The office of Lifelong Learning and Community Engagement has been very helpful to students who want to complete their degrees, and it is great to celebrate it,” said Karen Bowen, prior learning assessment specialist at UW Oshkosh.
Although coming back to school poses many challenges for adult learners, LLCE offers its students resources to help make that transition a little easier by assigning mentors, sending out targeted emails and a campus newsletter and providing tailored options for scholarships and financial aid.
The LLCE staff provides plenty of support in addition to the division’s many resources. Wendy VanAhn, community outreach specialist at UW Oshkosh, understands the importance of completing a degree and hopes to help any nontraditional student she can.
“Having a bachelor’s degree has become more important than ever before. It is a luxury to go straight through after high school and it is crucial to receive that credential that employers are looking for,” VanAhn said.
Staying up to date on what employers are looking for is another key driver of the LLCE changes and improvements over the years, all designed to benefit nontraditional students at UW Oshkosh.
“The biggest change over the years has been resurrecting the Credit for Prior Learning program. It was on the books in 1975, but Karen Bowen brought it to attention and made it happen,” VanAhn said.
With the Credit for Prior Learning program, students can take a nationally recognized test called the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), or they can create a portfolio displaying their knowledge to get credit for classes. Ultimately, the options provide flexibility — students don’t necessarily have to take classes that they already have the skills for.
“It is a great opportunity because some adults have accomplished great things without having completed their college degrees, and along the way they may have learned what they would learn in a college class,” said Bowen.
Additionally, the Graduation Project helps students apply to UW Oshkosh and get back on track to finish a degree they started at another point of time in their life.
Laurie Ahrens, the Graduation Project Specialist at UW Oshkosh, believes the program encourages everyone to graduate by taking classes on campus, off-site or online.
“The Graduation Project has no downside to it. I reach out to former UW Oshkosh students who were in good standing when they left, and have earned more than 75 credits. And 44 percent of those I have been in contact with have graduated,” said Ahrens.
Ahrens works as an advocate for referrals to admissions and other areas, so nontraditional students feel as though graduating is attainable even if they don’t live in Oshkosh or have other life obligations. This fall, there are 62 nontraditional students enrolled in the University Graduation Project who are on paths to earn their degrees.
Sherri Mahmoud is one of those students. Mahmoud is the current president of the Nontraditional Student Organization; she is also holding a job within LLCE helping nontraditional students. She said she has benefited from what UW Oshkosh has to offer in so many ways.
“The Adult Nontraditional Resource Office was the first place I went when deciding to return to school, and they have definitely helped me every step of the way. From deciding on a program, my application, FAFSA and any other questions I had. It is an amazing resource for nontraditional students,” said Mahmoud.
Even though UW Oshkosh has had success with graduating nontraditional students, VanAhn wants to make sure that LLCE continues to improve its awareness and effectiveness in the coming years.
“It’s my understanding that statewide schools look up to us with our work with nontraditional students. We can’t sit back and settle, though. … We need to keep making progress so we don’t fall behind,” VanAhn said.