Senior William Elgin starts work at 5 a.m. tending cattle on a farm outside of Galesburg. Some days, he cuts out early to check his two younger children’s homework and get them out the door to catch the school bus.
Then Elgin scrambles to take a shower and drive to campus for his first class at 9:20 a.m.
Elgin, one of an estimated 19 nontraditional students attending Knox this year, struggles to juggle the frenetic life of a husband, father of five children, cattle farmer and college student taking classes, often with little support services from the college. The lifestyle is not easy for the 45-year-old former construction company owner, but something he’s grown used to.
“You just do it. There’s no way around it,” said Elgin, who lives outside of Knoxville. “There’s nights that I’m tired, but you do what you can.”
Although Knox does not formally track so-called nontraditionals, administrators and the students themselves agree that they share certain traits. They usually live off campus, often with a family, and work in town. Many have transferred from a community college and some take classes only part-time. All are older than the average college student and have experienced some break in momentum between leaving high school and entering a four-year college.
Nontraditionals make up a tiny fraction of Knox’s student body: roughly two to 10 enter each fall, according to administration officials. With that fluctuation comes unique challenges that change from year to year.
Senior Erica Baumgardner, who takes classes while also raising a toddler and working weekends as a reporter at the Galesburg Register-Mail, has tried to revive a once active student club for fellow nontraditionals, but with little success. Her own struggles to find her place at Knox inspired her, starting with her first week on campus.
“I was so nervous and overwhelmed because I’d never even been on campus other than to get my ID card,” she said. “And I don’t want that for other people. It’s support, you really need support.”
Baumgardner only applied to one school.
Knox had been her first and only choice ever since attending College 4 Kids, Knox’s summer enrichment program for elementary students, while growing up in Galesburg. She still remembers taking an archeology class with other local kids and lying on the ground, drawing faces on each other’s chins during a comedy workshop.
“I really looked up to it,” she said. “I admired this campus.”
The 24-year-old wanted the same things out of Knox that most other admitted students do: small classes and one-on-one attention from professors.
But Baumgardner, a self-described “problem child” in high school, didn’t have the grades to cut it, so she entered Knox a year after graduating from Carl Sandburg College.
Elgin, who lives and works near Knoxville, had never seriously considered Knox until a favorite professor at Carl Sandburg encouraged him to apply.
Born and raised in southern Illinois, he had fallen one English credit short of graduating from high school, where he’d devoted most of his energy to football and girls.
He can still feel the sting of sitting in the bleachers, watching his buddies walk across the stage without him. It wasn’t until he received a settlement from a roofing accident that he had time to consider going back to school. He took the GED, which turned into a few courses at Carl Sandburg and eventually an associate’s degree.
Elgin recalls receiving his big, purple acceptance letter in the mail from Knox.
“I thought ‘Wow, I have arrived,’” he said. “And then all of a sudden I was filled with dread.”
Elgin starts work early, tutors humanities subjects at Carl Sandburg in the afternoons and returns to the fields to give the cows a final feeding before driving home at night. And that is typical for non-traditional students, whose daily routines are a constant juggling act.
To make time for her weekend reporting job, Baumgardner tries to get all her homework done on weekdays, aided in that task by a babysitter who looks after her child.
“I spend all the money that I get from that [job] on my babysitter,” she said. “And she gets paid more than I do.”
Her husband, who manages evening shifts at Iron Spike Brewpub, makes up the difference.
Nontraditional students also encounter practical struggles on campus, including library, lab and office hours tailored to residential students, after-hours films and strict class attendance policies. And since most live off campus, they must learn how to navigate things most students take for granted, like figuring out where to eat, store their things or meet with a study group.
Senior Holly McDorman, who transferred into Knox last year and works full-time at a Walgreens pharmacy, said she’s still confused by some aspects of the college.
“I’m a senior and I have no idea where certain places are, who to talk to for things,” said the 32-year-old.
At Carl Sandburg, where McDorman resumed her education in 2011, she recalls being signed up for classes well ahead of term and was taken straight to the college’s TRIO office to speak with an adviser.
McDorman graduated from Galesburg High School in 2001 as one of the first George Washington Gale Scholars but didn’t make it directly to college as planned. Her husband helps her manage her return by staying home with their four kids, but she wishes Knox itself offered more support.
The bureaucracy frustrates her, too. McDorman hasn’t forgotten about having to obtain formal permission to live off campus — in her own house.
Little things, like being able to eat in the cafeteria, would make a big difference, she said. She tried once, but was embarrassed to find out the cafeteria didn’t accept cash. At that point, she didn’t know about the Gizmo.
She started crying, thinking, “I’m not even allowed inside the caf,” she said. “I don’t want to feel ostracized from other students.”
More than struggling to make lab hours to work on her digital photography project or having to resign from clubs that meet in the evening, making connections with peers is Baumgardner’s greatest challenge at Knox. Students who meet her for the first time occasionally mistake the 24-year-old for an incoming freshman.
“The biggest obstacle here is feeling alienated,” said Baumgardner. “You can get through anything if you just have someone to talk to.”
That was where the nontraditional student club once came in. Founded by Irene Ponce in 1998, who worked at Seymour Library for 28 years and earned a Knox degree herself, the club held monthly luncheons for non-traditionals and organized community service events that worked with their schedules.
When Ponce retired, the Career Center’s office coordinator and former nontraditional Missy Kratz helped run the club. She and several other nontraditional student/staff members helped staff nontraditional student orientation, connect students with services and offer advice.
But according to Kratz, the club became difficult to sustain on top of their jobs and its student members lacked the time to lead it themselves. It was put on non-budgeted status and has remained inactive for almost a year, even though it still has a page on the college website that lists Baumgardner as president.
Dean of Student Development Deb Southern acknowledged that the administration could be more proactive about getting nontraditional students connected at Knox.
“I see all students as students,” said Southern. “Understanding [their] needs so that we’re in a position to better meet those needs is the goal. I know we’re a residential liberal arts college, but that doesn’t necessarily mean at the exclusion of everybody else.”
Professors can and do help support some of those needs.
McDorman’s advisor, Assistant Professor of English Cyn Kitchen, has special insight into her advisee’s situation. Kitchen graduated from Knox in 2000 as a single working mother of four young children after working everywhere from Orange Julius to a gas station.
“Nontraditional students are not the college’s target demographic, so those of us who come here are doing it out of pure grit and determination to get an education,” said Kitchen.
She understands that re-entering the academic environment often “rattles their confidence” and makes them stand out. But Kitchen sees their life experience as an asset and tries to help the few nontraditionals who’ve passed through her classes over the years own that asset.
Like traditional students, nontraditionals find themselves at Knox for a variety of reasons. For McDorman, it’s a chance to prove to herself that she can finish what she started and set an example for her children. For Baumgardner, it’s another step toward her goal of becoming a college professor and to provide a better future for her son.
Elgin works toward similar goals. Knox has also helped him reassess the way he sees the world. Raised in tiny Havana, Ill. by an ex-military father, he grew up believing what his family and community taught him.
“I’ve changed a lot since I’ve come to Knox,” he said. “I was raised to be a racist.”
He realized he “didn’t have to be that way” in his thirties, but Knox played a major role in showing him that he doesn’t have to think in any fixed pattern or shun differences through sociology courses and class discussions with bright students and engaging professors.
Elgin believes he has something to add to those conversations, too.
“It’s one thing to learn this out of a textbook, but it’s a different thing altogether to sit next to someone who may have lived through that,” he said.