They are early risers and hard workers. They have a “talent for struggling through” and the determination that follows. Some are the first in their family to go to college — or even graduate from high school — and many are financially independent from their parents. They’re often struggling to pay for rent, groceries and transportation while taking classes. And that means working while in school — in retail, on campus or even with a lawn care business.
Meet the “nontraditional” college students of today. Though they are among the estimated 12.3 million students who are under 25 years old, their lives look very different from the “typical” student we see in movies and TV.
The stories below offer a glimpse into their lives and the challenges they face.
—Elissa Nadworny, NPR
Eric Ramos, 19, San Antonio
Eric Ramos says he’s been poor all his life. His mom always told him, “Go to school. You’ll be better off,” and he says that’s what he’s doing. But it hasn’t been easy.
Ramos is the youngest of three brothers and is the first in his family to graduate from high school. He lives in San Antonio with his mom and one of his brothers, and he also helps support them.
“I’m paying the light bill,” Ramos says. “I pay half the rent bill; some grocery bills. I have to give money to my mom because she needs it. I have to pay for my car.”
In the fall, when he first enrolled in San Antonio College, he thought he’d be able to handle three classes and a full-time job at a sporting goods store.
But in the first few weeks of class, Ramos, 19, fell behind. He got sick and missed a couple days — the same days his instructors talked about online assignments. He says he didn’t learn about those assignments until a month into the semester. When he finally logged into the online portal, he had several zeros in the grade book.
“I was really failing the class with like a 30[%],” Ramos says, sitting on a bench outside the campus library. “I was kind of frustrated because I wasn’t told. But that’s my fault because I missed two days of school. That’s kind of a lot for college.”
He says if he’d known how important those first few weeks were, he would have gone to class even though he was sick.
After that, Ramos says he reduced his hours at work and managed to raise his grades enough to pass.
He plans to get a certificate in information technology and find a higher-paying job in tech support, then keep working and going to school until he has an associate’s degree in cybersecurity.
Ramos says he still isn’t sure if he likes college, but he sees it as the best way to help his family financially.
“I want more because I’ve lived through it: I know what it’s like to be homeless and not have any money at all and nothing to eat for about two days.”
He also wants to fulfill his family’s hopes for him.
“The pressure’s on me,” he says. “They think I’m going to be the one who makes it out.”
—Camille Phillips, Texas Public Radio
Bailey Nowak, 21, Laramie, Wyo.
Bailey Nowak has been running her own lawn care business since she was 12 years old. The income from that job put Nowak, 21, through two years at a community college in her hometown of Cheyenne, Wyo.
But in the fall, when she transferred to the University of Wyoming for a bachelor’s in business and marketing, she discovered her seasonal earnings wouldn’t go as far.
In Cheyenne, tuition was low and Nowak lived with her parents. In Laramie, tuition went up and there was rent to pay. She had to take a second job on campus, helping other students write resumes and prepare for job interviews.
Neither of Nowak’s parents went to college. She says they backed her decision to go but couldn’t support her financially, so she’s been paying for it on her own. She’s proud of her ability to take care of herself, but she knows she’s missing out. She sees how easy it is for friends who don’t work to get involved with student clubs and networking opportunities — things she struggles to find the time for.
If she didn’t have to work, she says, “I’d be able to have a college experience like other students.”
That might have been possible with more help from a state-funded scholarship. To qualify, high schoolers have to meet certain ACT and GPA requirements. Nowak believes she missed out on thousands of dollars because she didn’t study for the ACT. She says, at the time, she just didn’t know what was at stake.
She remembers hearing about the scholarship in eighth grade, but it didn’t come up again until she was applying to community college. And that was too late to bring her ACT score up by the two points she needed to get the most out of the scholarship.
“[They] should have told the juniors … higher ACT scores meant higher scholarship money,” Nowak says, with a hint of frustration. “That would have helped me out.”
Looking back, she says being a first-generation college student put her at a disadvantage. She thinks about a friend whose parents had gone to college. “They prepped her so hard for the ACT,” Nowak says. “She did nightly study; she had to go to teachers.”
Despite all the challenges, Nowak says, “I’m right where I need to be.” She still received the scholarship, but a lesser amount. She’s on track to graduate a semester early in December 2020, and she’s eyeing internships in real estate back in Cheyenne for when she’s done. Eventually, she’d like to use her degree to expand her lawn care business.
—Tennessee Watson, Wyoming Public Media
Diana Platas, 21, Houston
Since as far back as she can remember, Diana Platas has wanted to be an immigration attorney. She says she was inspired by something she saw on Univision: a lawyer who helped undocumented immigrant families in the U.S. Those families looked a lot like her own.
Platas, 21, is a DREAMer — her parents emigrated from Monterrey, Mexico, to Houston when she was 2. She was the first in her family to finish high school — neither of her parents made it past middle school — and in December, she became the first to earn a college degree after finishing her bachelor’s in political science a year and a half early.
But getting that college degree wasn’t easy.
“Being first-gen, just getting to college itself is a challenge because you don’t know how to prepare for it,” Platas says. And as she was learning the process, she also had to explain it to her parents.
Then there was the money. Her parents have blue-collar jobs and as a DREAMer, she couldn’t apply for federal financial aid, just state aid. That’s why, in high school, her parents sat her down at the kitchen table and asked her to drop her plans for college.
“They couldn’t afford it and didn’t want me to get excited about it,” Platas remembers.
She was crushed — until a cousin told her about a more affordable option: the University of Houston-Downtown, a public university with no dorms that primarily enrolls students of color. She applied and received a full-ride merit scholarship for students who start as freshmen.
Platas had taken community college classes in high school, but she says navigating the university campus, registering for classes, applying for state financial aid — it was all new and overwhelming.
“I was afraid, scared. It was a different experience. But I felt welcomed here, and the faculty I met within the first few weeks of orientation made me feel more prepared.”
Platas studied full time. Like many of her classmates, she lived at home with her family and had a part-time job.
In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey, her home flooded and she had to rely on friends and family for a place to stay. All the moving around made it hard to focus on schoolwork, and Platas sometimes slept on the sofa in the student government office so she could get things done.
Now that she’s graduated, Platas hopes to start law school in the fall. She says one thing she learned while getting her degree was to just start doing it, and not think too much about the limitations.
“Sometimes we’re scared because of being first-gen or our legal status or economic status,” she says. “It’s important to take that first step.”
—Laura Isensee, Houston Public Media
Kim Embe, 19, Harrisonburg, Va.
Most mornings, James Madison University freshman Kim Embe wakes up before the sun and goes to the gym or runs outside.
“It actually makes me feel really productive starting off the day,” Embe says. “When I don’t do it I get really anxious.”
In her first class of the day, her hand shoots up to answer just about every question, and she takes meticulous, handwritten notes, alternating between pencil and colored pens. (She has a system.)
Embe, 19, is also the president of her dorm, a member of the campus vegan club and volunteers in her community. She plans on interning at a women’s shelter and currently works part time as a peer counselor for the university’s financial aid department. In that job, Embe answers parent and student questions about how to finance an education.
Meanwhile, she tries not to stress out about her own finances.
Embe became homeless in her senior year of high school, when things got tough at home. She started living with friends and eventually got connected with a support system and a school social worker. That social worker helped her apply to college as an independent. Thanks to a combination of scholarships and financial aid, Embe has a full ride at James Madison.
But she’s pretty much on her own when it comes to expenses outside of school. Embe worked a couple of jobs before starting college, and she saved up to pay her phone bill and car insurance.
“It’s a little hard because I don’t have extra spending money just laying around,” she says.
But she believes that independence has given her a leg up over other freshmen.
“A lot of people didn’t know how to do stuff by themselves. A surprising number of people couldn’t do laundry by themselves or they didn’t know what it was like to have to get a job.”
Making friends has been another matter. Embe broke up with her boyfriend the day before moving into her dorm, and it was hard to get close to people after that.
“I wouldn’t talk to anyone. … I was like, I’m never going to get better, I’m never going to open up to anyone.”
And the popularity of Greek life at James Madison didn’t make things any easier. Embe is African American at a school where 22% are students of color, and she says it was hard to relate to many of her peers. But she hit it off with two students she met through a university roommate search. Both of those students want to become teachers, and Embe says they connected because of their shared goal of helping kids. They plan to live together off-campus this fall.
In the meantime, Embe is working toward a degree in social work and hopes to go to grad school. Once she graduates, she says she’d like to join the Peace Corps and wants to find a way to help kids in difficult situations — kids like her.
—Megan Pauly, WCVE
Evan Spencer, 25, Montpelier, Vt.
When Evan Spencer was in high school, there were really only two options for post-graduation life: “You were either going to college or vocational school, or … I don’t know what.”
That social pressure to sign up for more schooling — Spencer rebuffed it. After graduation, he started working at a local Italian restaurant, bussing tables at first and eventually becoming a server. But after a few years, he couldn’t see a future — what was around him felt permanent in a way it hadn’t before.
“I think to get out of those loops, you have to get an education,” he says. So he signed up for classes at his local branch of the Community College of Vermont. He lived at home — just a short drive away — and took classes full-time. He was only in his early twenties, but very aware that he hadn’t come straight from high school. “It can be a painful process to grow and to learn,” he says, “when you’re in class with an 18-year-old … you can see the person you used to be.”
He paid for classes from the money he had earned working after high school — and he got involved in campus clubs, extracurriculars and internships. He hadn’t been as enthused in high school, but college felt different.
“It teaches you about yourself,” Spencer says. “When you’re going to school, you’re learning so much more than just schoolwork. You’re learning life skills, you’re learning how to connect to people, you’re learning what other people think of the world around you.”
This month, Spencer graduated with his associate degree. He’s planning on attending Paul Smith’s College in the fall to get his bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife management.
Graduation, he says, was a real sense of accomplishment, strangely mixed with this apprehension of what’s to come. It’s as if he’s, “coming to the edge of a new jump,” he says. “It’s like an odd checkpoint of, ‘Nice job. Keep going!’ ”
—Elissa Nadworny, NPR
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