In the book “Distinction,” Pierre Bourdieu defines social and cultural capital as social resources which confer power and status in society. Today’s economy rewards students who are technologically adept, are able to secure internships, study abroad and maintain high academic standards — all symbols of social and cultural capital. Acquiring social and cultural capital is a labor-intensive practice for all students, but for nontraditional students — defined as 25 years and older — perhaps even more arduous.
Nontraditional students face distinct challenges in securing social and cultural capital. Due to complex social identities, nontraditional students may face increased alienation or even social isolation. Finances, outside lives and coursework demands, all may limit the time nontraditional students have for socializing. As nontraditional students grapple with adjusting to college norms, using school supports could enhance learning outside of the classroom.
Nontraditional students should consider forming supportive communities to mitigate stressors stemming from work, social lives or even cognitive adjustments caused from reorienting to academic culture. Investing time is necessary for meeting not only academic standards, but also commitments expected from other social worlds. Although nontraditional students like to think of themselves as superhuman, many neglect their well-being to their own detriment. For me, ignoring the need for help my first time out in graduate school led to unfortunate consequences.
As a first-generation graduate student at Hunter College, located in New York City, I quickly found myself overwhelmed by the academic course load. I overestimated my professional experience as properly preparing me for graduate work. I soon learned I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the courses. I struggled with managing my personal and work commitments. Instead of easing back into academic life slowly, I took on one too many classes. My desire to complete my program as fast as possible, instead led me to drop out. When looking back at my time in Hunter College, I realized I never considered utilizing the student support systems available. Accessing those services — mental health, career services, professors, including student groups — could have improved my success that first semester.
After leaving Hunter’s graduate program, I worked four years with troubled youth in foster care. Working in social services taught me how to design a case plan for foster clients. Using the clinical skills I practiced in case management, I approached my first semester here at Penn as I would manage past clients. Clients were always encouraged to talk to people and find supports to help them meet their goals. Before the start of the semester, I contacted my advisor. Her response was extremely supportive of my return to graduate school, and talking allayed many of the concerns about my age and time away from the classroom. Forecasting that I might become stressed from trying to manage both school and my personal life, I signed up for Counseling and Psychological Services. Reflecting on my significant time out of school, I thought it might be shrewd to take a class teaching strategies for success in higher education. So I enrolled in a higher education course in GSE focused on meta-cognitive strategies for success in higher education.
In the spring of 2015, a writing instructor at the Weingarten Learning Resource Center, encouraged me to turn a course assignment into a student organization. Out of this conversation, she and I collaborated in forming Students to Scholars. The organization was created to provide nontraditional students a safe space to discuss academic writing, meet doctoral students, address institutional concerns and provide peer support. Students to Scholars hopes to help students tap into their rich identities, then connect their identities with fellowship and scholarship.
Nontraditional students may struggle more to actively build social and cultural capital as traditional students are able to do. Although all students have access to social and cultural capital resources in university settings, nontraditional students complex lives often prevents them from accessing additional school resources. Student support services can provide social resources leading to a more rewarding experience while in the Penn community. Isolation should not be viewed as the de rigueur experience for nontraditional students or any other person on campus.
KEMUEL BENYEHUDAH is a graduate student from New York. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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