A woman sitting at a table with her left arm resting on it and her head sitting in her right hand. She is sitting in front of a window that faces the compass plaza.
Amber Collier, a military veteran and former contractor and aircraft machinist, is pursuing a bachelor's degree in forensic science with a concentration in forensic biology. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Adult and nontraditional students thrive with help of variety of resources at VCU

The Office of Adult and Nontraditional Student Services, Rams Reconnect and the Amazon Career Choice program are among the efforts to benefit adult and nontraditional students in their college educations.

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After working as a contractor and aircraft machinist for 20 years, military veteran Amber Collier decided to change careers.

“It’s hard work and as I get older, I wanted to pursue my passion in science,” Collier said. “I am inquisitive, and when I see a problem, I try to fix it.”

Collier started at Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall of 2021 after transferring from Reynolds Community College where she earned an associate degree in science. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in forensic science with a concentration in forensic biology through the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

“I have a strong work ethic, and I believe that my future employer will greatly benefit from my previous career experiences and knowledge. Plus, I enjoy working. It gives me a sense of purpose,” Collier said. “Being a scientist in a lab suits my investigative and problem-solving personality very well. But I plan to continue my education here at VCU by getting my master’s degree as well.”

Collier grew up in Richmond and always felt VCU was the best place to maximize her goals during her career change, she said.

“VCU has an amazing forensic [science] department, and I feel like it’s a dream come true,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better place.”

Collier is a person that loves to learn, but being an adult learner has been challenging for her, she said.

“I am constantly trying to better myself. But, because I am older and worked doing hands-on work, academics is a bit more challenging,” she said. “It takes a little more concentration for the academic portion. It’s been a little bit of a learning curve.”

VCU has helped Collier’s pursuits by guiding her to beneficial services such as tutoring.

“They want me to achieve success,” she said. “It can be overwhelming being an adult learner, but I take it a day at a time, and I take in as much as I can.”

Strengthening the adult learner experience

This fall semester there are 1,536 adult and nontraditional students such as Collier at VCU. Daphne Rankin, Ph.D., associate vice president for summer studies and special programs, started looking at the changing demographics of adult education two years ago.

“There was data about the possibility of a shrinking freshman enrollment,” she said. “We started thinking about those students who may have some credits somewhere but never finished their degree. They are very different from incoming freshman students. They are different in their mindset. They know they want to go back to school.”

In order to pinpoint those students, VCU started the Rams Reconnect program in 2019. The program identifies good candidates for graduation and helps students who have withdrawn from their institution with the intention of returning overcome the barriers blocking them from continuing to graduation. Common barriers include finances, social and emotional challenges, the need to work, transportation issues, military service and child care.

Key components of Rams Reconnect include providing completion grants to help adult learners and nontraditional students and offering general advising and financial counseling aimed at creating a plan to clear roadblocks to graduation. 

VCU also established the Office of Adult and Nontraditional Student Services within the Division of Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success in March 2021 and hired Stephanie Ganser as director of the adult learner experience. The office works with adult learners coming to VCU to complete their bachelor’s degree who are 25 years old and older, and they work with nontraditional students who are married, widowed, divorced, have children or other dependents or who are affiliated with the military.

“When they are here, I am the student’s point of contact,” Ganser said. “I want to help minimize as many barriers as possible. We look at how to make it as easy as possible to help a student graduate. We want to see the adult learner population grow.”

The office holds programs just for adult learners and has breakout sessions during orientation.

“I collaborate with the Office of Admissions to host recruitment and yield events for prospective students,” Ganser said.

Helping grow the number of adult and nontraditional students

As a way to grow that population, VCU works with Amazon as an Amazon Career Choice partner. Amazon gives both part- and full-time employees money to complete their bachelor’s degree at VCU or an associate degree at one of four community colleges in Virginia.

“VCU is the only four-year school in the state to be a partner. There are four community college partners — Reynolds, Brightpoint, Northern Virginia and Laurel Ridge,” Ganser said. “We have great relationships with the four community colleges. If a student wants to start there and transfer here, that is great as well.”

Adult learners and nontraditional students at VCU can take part in the honor society Alpha Sigma Lambda.

“We inducted the first class in November 2021. We inducted our second class this November. There are over 300 chapters across the U.S., and we are part of that group now,” Ganser said. “Having VCU as a member gives our students the opportunity to apply for additional scholarships.”

“The average GPA is a 3.8 of this group, and we celebrate our students with an induction ceremony where their friends and family are invited,” Ganser said. “It is important to recognize the people who support our students completing their degree.”

Being part of the honor society “speaks volumes to how VCU looks at the whole student,” Rankin said.

“We are lucky that VCU embraces diversity,” she said.

Adult and nontraditional learners bring their experience and depth to class discussions and to the campus, she adds.

“I would love to see our office evolve to the point where we have an active presence of adult learners who would be very involved,” Rankin said. “If we continue to evolve, we will learn more about what this population is looking for and what they would like to see. We will be tuned into helping their needs.”

Finding your true calling

John Luangkhot, who graduated from VCU in early December with a degree in urban and regional studies/planning from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, started at the university in the fall of 2020. Prior to VCU, he attended West Virginia University before taking some time off from school to work in the service industry.

“I wanted to get in touch with myself and understand my true calling,” said Luangkhot, who is Laotian and Thai. “Since I was a little boy I would play pretend building cities outside with sticks and stones. Urban and regional planners can help create communities that are holistic and independent.”

Luangkhot came to VCU because of the university’s urban and regional planning program.

“That program has excellent resources,” he said. “I also liked the fact that the community at VCU is vibrant and diverse.”

Like Collier, Luangkhot admits there are challenges to being an adult learner. Still, there are also benefits. In Luangkhot’s case, he points to his experience and “my nature to carry on.”

He urges people to consider furthering their education at any age.

“Age is just a number,” he said. “Everyone’s path to success is different.”