Panama City, Panama. In the six years that I taught geography at Northern Virginia Community College, known as NOVA, I developed a habit of getting to the classroom early to chat with whichever students happened to trickle in. Sometimes it was fifteen minutes early, other times an hour. I also frequently chatted with students after class, and the conversations often ended up trickling out into the hallway, the cafeteria, or the parking lot. Sometimes they lasted for hours. One reason for this is that community colleges enroll many “non-traditional students”—and often they had a lot to talk about. Non-traditional student is a broad term that includes students who are not coming straight from high school, did not get a high school diploma (and often got a GED instead), are attending college part-time, are working full-time, have kids or elderly dependents, or some combination of the above.

One semester, there was a Vietnamese-American student in his thirties who typically showed up twenty or thirty minutes early for an eight a.m. class. He always had a cup of coffee. Sometimes he looked tired, and on occasion he would put his head on the desk for a quick nap. Other times, we would chat as I logged in and turned on the projector. One morning, he mentioned he was a cop in DC, which was fifteen minutes away across the Potomac River. He worked the overnight shift, from eight p.m. to six a.m. The night before, he and his partner had been “sitting on a stolen car” for four hours—meaning waiting in a squad car nearby to see if the thieves would return. At three a.m. they did, and they caught them. Then, when his shift had ended, he had gotten a coffee at 7-11 and driven to NOVA to go to class. Another time, he mentioned that he was taking my class as an elective, toward an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) certificate. He said he had two young kids at home, and he wanted another career skill “just in case.”

This is one example of the extraordinary things that non-traditional students do to pursue higher education. They are often going through some type of transition in their lives. Some are in the process of reinventing themselves. Some are on a fast-track, plowing through requirements for switching careers. Others are dabbling, exploring new options. Some are GIs coming back to school after years of military service. Some are moms coming back to school after or while raising kids. Some students started college elsewhere and ran into obstacles—money, work, failing grades, life-altering illness or injury, dyslexia, bipolar, ADHD, life distractions, or they just weren’t ready. Some are coming off a divorce or the death of a loved one. And at NOVA, many are immigrants transitioning to American life.

Some of my non-traditional students with jobs worked in government planning offices, others at Taco Bell. Some were retired and auditing geography, sometimes looking for new perspectives on the world before or after traveling. A few PhDs and three middle-aged lawyers—very successful ones—came through in the process of becoming high school teachers. The three lawyers are all now teaching AP classes in Virginia’s public schools. But as geography is a requirement for K-12 teaching licensure in Virginia, scores of other future teachers took my classes as well. They came from all walks of life: business, construction, even professional theater. At least four burly military veterans were aiming to teach middle school social studies: an Army helicopter pilot; a platoon leader in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan; an infantry soldier; and a Navy coastal engineer. In his is fifties, the last said, “Engineering was the job the Navy gave me when I was twenty. Now it’s time to do what I want to do. History is my passion.”

Another non-traditional student was a friendly Muslim lady in her thirties who had immigrated a few years before from Morocco. English was her fourth language, after Arabic, Berber, and French. She had already been a licensed and experienced primary grades teacher in Morocco, but neither that license nor the experience counted toward licensure in Virginia. So, to fulfill state requirements, she was working full time as a first grade teaching assistant in Virginia, while driving over to take afternoon and evening classes at NOVA—on top of taking care of her husband and kids at home.

I usually assigned a project to design a trip to a foreign country, with certain types of stops. I told students I am not good at remembering names, but I remember their projects years later. On several occasions, I sat in the cafeteria with this Moroccan lady to help plan her trip to the cultural landscapes of eastern Turkey. She found small ethnic minority regions I had never heard of and said she had always wanted to visit the surreal landscapes of Cappadocia. She ended up getting the highest final grade in the class. “You know,” I told her, “We have a lot of kids who speak English as their first language, have no job and all the time in the world, but don’t study. They’re getting B’s, C’s and D’s. But you have a job and a family, you’re taking classes after work, and your average was a 98. And the class is in your fourth language!” She laughed and said, “Yes, the English is more difficult for me. But I know this, and that is why I work so hard.” This is a good example of the special motivation that non-traditional students bring—which is an invaluable godsend for teachers. Their input, questions, and presence often lift classes far beyond where they would be without them.

Colleges today try to market their “diversity” as part of the costly experience they sell. NOVA is inexpensive but makes many “highly diverse” colleges look like Finland. It has been called a “modern-day Ellis Island,” as its 77,000 students come from over 180 countries. A good example of a NOVA moment came when I gave a guest lecture in an economics class and used Rwanda as an example. “Just to get oriented, can anybody point out Rwanda on this map?” I asked. Three hands immediately went up. Turns out, all three students were recent immigrants from Rwanda.

In an urban geography unit, we studied “ethnoburbs”: suburban areas where large clusters of particular ethnic groups could be found. Many students could go on a field trip of sorts to observe ethnoburbs just by going home. For example, just on the other side of Route 7 from NOVA’s Alexandria campus is the largest Bolivian community in the United States, in Arlington. Ten minutes northwest up the road is the Eden Center, the largest Vietnamese shopping center on the East Coast. Fifteen minutes southwest is downtown Annandale, aka Koreatown, the center of a Korean community of forty thousand. These are just a few of the ethnoburbs that feed students into NOVA.

But NOVA also helped me realize that real diversity goes far deeper than race, ethnicity, nationality, age, and socioeconomic status. Just as extreme are its diversity of perspective, thought, dreams, motivation, commitment, and experience. In the early nineties, I attended Georgetown University, a school known for its international outlook and School of Foreign Service. It does attract a number of international students—including some future diplomats and policymakers. But if you scratch beneath the surface, often they have gone to the same sorts of elite private high schools around the world, where English is the language of instruction and Western curricula and norms are dominant. So despite their diverse passports, students’ jet-set experiences are often quite homogenous and unlike that of the average person in their home country.

By contrast, NOVA enrolls many immigrant students still acclimatizing to American life and still dripping with the culture of the country they came from. Given that setting, I was very lucky to have taught geography, a subject which lends itself to sharing experiences from around the world. During one discussion about medical geography, for example, the question came up as to whether you can die from malaria, and if so, how likely is it? I admitted that off the top of my head, I didn’t know. Luckily, one student from Sierra Leone let us know that you can die from malaria, but that she had had it before—three times. She said this was common. You feel really sick, but you take your medicine and it goes away. In another class, while studying climate geography, we discussed the trade winds that blow 100 miles per hour over the Sahara, whipping up sandstorms. One woman from the Sudan explained how they call this wind a haboob, and when it’s over you take a broom and sweep out the piles of sand that have blown through the cracks into your house.

In a long unit on the geography of Islam, I showed many slides to illustrate how the practice of Islam differs greatly from region to region. But students could see examples of this just by standing in the hallway. In one hour, Muslim students from at least a dozen different countries would walk by—from Asia, Africa, and Europe. Some carried prayer rugs and prayed in the stairwell. Some female Muslim students wore the chador from head to toe, with only the face showing. Many wore only the hijab headscarf. Once I was surprised to see a new student registering for classes wearing a burqa, with even the eyes covered in mesh. And some Muslim students wore no religious clothing at all, like one bubbly student from Pakistan who wrote in her homework “I am just a regular Muslim-American girl.”

Some Muslim students had had life experiences that were anything but regular. During a discussion about the challenges that refugees were facing during the Arab Spring, one girl in her twenties from Afghanistan explained how she herself had spent several of her teenage years living in refugee camps in Afghanistan and later refugee housing in Germany. She had learned a lot about life and was extremely mature and resilient for her age, but she had missed whole years of real instruction and was lacking some basic reading comprehension and writing skills. This is one example of the sorts of idiosyncratic mixes of real-world education and gaps in classroom education that non-traditional students often have to manage.

Students at NOVA are often managing disparities between their goals and their bank accounts as well. One student from Bangladesh had graduated at the top of his class at a top public high school nearby. He had gotten into the University of Virginia (UVA), but had opted—wisely—to save money (a lot of money) by going to NOVA for two years first, living at home, with guaranteed transfer admission to UVA later. Like many other immigrants, he had learned quickly what many Americans still do not fully realize: that community colleges are often the best deal in higher education and a way to avoid the extortionary tuition rates of “top colleges.” (And the instructors at community colleges get paid to teach, not to publish). One evening, just before class started, the student let me know that he would have to leave early. He and his parents and siblings were taking the oath to become naturalized US citizens that night, after a five-year process.

A number of students at NOVA—including some very bright students—were restarting their college careers after screwing up their freshman year royally at another school. You’re not alone, I told them. Bombing freshman year happens a lot. While I don’t recommend it, I did it myself. Starting over at another school can sometimes be the best option.

Moreover, the obvious but often ignored truth is that many young people simply do not want to be in school when they are eighteen years old, regardless of how academically-oriented they are. They’ve spent their days in classrooms since kindergarten and want to try getting a job, traveling—something different. But other than joining the military or working at Starbucks, their options are often limited, as America gutted much of its vocational educational systems in the 1970s and now funnels the vast majority of students into a life of more books and papers, often with a six-figure price tag. By contrast, some 48% of students in Germany and 65% in Singapore have already veered onto vocational tracks by age sixteen and are ready to work in high-tech trades by their late teens. Think about those numbers. Millions of American students desperately need what these Asian and European models offer. As author and career-choice expert Anthony Spadafore of Pathfinders Career Design told me:

The hands-on clients that I get are typically approaching their sophomore year of college and realizing that something is off the mark, but they can’t put their finger on exactly why. They usually have a gut sense that they’re not cut out to sit behind a desk all day staring at a computer screen, but they don’t know how to interpret what their inner voice is telling them. Many blame themselves for not liking college. The message they’re getting is that it’s on them to be grittier and buckle down to do the hard work required to cross the finish line with a degree. Some have already dropped out or are performing poorly, while some are doing just well enough to hang on but don’t have enthusiasm for what they are learning. What they don’t know about themselves is that they are naturally cut out for career paths that don’t look anything like a typical four-year bachelor’s curriculum. They’re cut out for practical paths such as trades, which are best learned through an apprenticeship with direct, hands-on experiential training with mentors.

One of the few places Americans can get paid to go through direct, hands-on experiential training is the military. And of all the groups of non-traditional students who sat in my classes, military veterans were by far the largest, numbering well over a hundred. This was especially helpful in geography, because military personnel have usually seen other parts of the world with their own eyes, and military activities often involve maps and spatial thinking in some way. Military veterans brought in some types of maps I had never seen, like war simulation maps and aeronautical charts that pilots use to navigate airspace. Some of them had never finished high school and got a GED instead—in some cases, through online classes they took while stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. One veteran in his thirties described an Afghan street market where vendors brought in live goats and cut them up for sale right on the street. He said one day, the market was blown up by terrorists, but the vendors reconstructed it and were back in business selling goat meat and cardamom again the next morning. A fast-thinking army medic in his twenties, who was on his way to becoming an ER doctor, gave a ten-minute presentation with photos illustrating how his unit had worked with families in Afghanistan. They taught mothers about health, nutrition, and medicines, exchanged foods and cultural perspectives, and played soccer with the kids and taught them English. He said the Army had told US troops that relationship building was one of their top priorities. That ten minutes completely altered my understanding of how the US military operates overseas.

This theme of relationship building was echoed by another young soldier, who related a story about how he left Afghanistan. He said his unit had developed close relationships with rural Afghan people. When it was time to go back to the US, the soldiers arrived at the airport, where theirs was the only flight of the day. But unexpectedly, the locals drove up in a truck and would not let the plane leave. They said there had to be a feast first. So, they unloaded a grill and set it up in the lobby, roasted lamb and goat, and all the American troops sat with the Afghanis on the tiles of the airport floor and they ate together for three hours. Afterward, there were many hugs, and finally the soldiers boarded the plane and took off.

In those minutes and hours chatting before and after class, at least five vets who had been to Iraq and Afghanistan mentioned that they had some type of PTSD. Some had really struggled with it, and often made a lot of progress just by living one day at a time. And some veterans in my classes had physical injuries from military service. In one class, there were a few guys in their late twenties who came in thirty minutes early almost every time. As we shot the breeze, every so often I would crack a joke. But one Army veteran didn’t seem to laugh—ever. I tried to think, could I have offended him somehow? Later in September, he mentioned that he had been part of The Surge in Iraq in 2007. We had discussed in class how The Surge had kept insurgents that US troops chased out of neighborhoods from coming back, by adding thousands more troops to hold down the area. “But how did they actually make sure the insurgents were gone?” I asked the young soldier. “Door to door,” he said. “It’s the only way to do it.” And that’s what he did in Baghdad. He went door to door, looking for the bad guys. One day, an IED exploded a hundred feet away and sent a piece of shrapnel into the back of his head. It had gone through the base of his skull and lodged in his brain. So now, he said, “When I laugh or sneeze, I see stars.” Ah, so that’s why he doesn’t laugh. Later in the semester, in October, I bumped into him in the hallway on the way to class. He had an unusual request: Could he turn in his entire project in early November, even though it was not due until mid-December, and then miss three or four weeks of class and come back in December to take the final exam? He was having surgery to remove the shrapnel from his brain. I said no problem. Sure enough, he turned in a great project on New Zealand and was back in class in December, just three weeks after successful brain surgery.

When I first started teaching at NOVA, I had no idea of the types of non-traditional students I would meet. Their resilience and motivation made me wonder if a non-traditional route is actually better, at least for some. And the experiences they shared turned out to be a non-traditional education for me. As St. Augustine said of friendship in youth, “Each of us had something to learn from the others and something to teach in return.” Thirty minutes before geography starts, in a half-empty classroom on a Tuesday afternoon, often turned out to be just the time and place to do it.

Image credit. The photo depicts Bob Barger, a World War II veteran who graduated from Toledo University at age 96. 

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