Nontraditional students bring real-life experience to PSU-LV campus

Aurora on left with sister

Nontraditional Student Recognition Week, which runs November 4-11, acknowledges learners who juggle school, family, work, and more

Credit: Aurora Taormina

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Scheduling classes is a routine task for college students. For nontraditional students like Jim Honer though, scheduling is more of a balancing act.

“When I’m planning my classes, I try to do them on my wife’s schedule so I have most of my classes on her days off,” he said. Honer also gave praise to his mother-in-law who, fortunately, helps several days a week. “She’s amazing,” he said. “With my schedule this semester, I’m gone during the day most of the time.”

Honer’s story is not that different from many nontraditional learners — students who earn their degrees at night, on weekends, exclusively online, or in a format outside of the standard college schedule. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2004-09, found full-time employment, then started a family. He and his wife now have three children, aged 13, 6, and 2.

But as his children grew older and the physical nature of his work started taking its toll, Honer decided it was time for a change. He chose PSU-LV because his younger brother attended and had a good experience at the campus.

The Macungie resident is majoring in business with a minor in accounting and hopes to find a job that is less strenuous. “In the long run, everything I’m doing is for my family,” he said. “I’m trying to preserve my body so I can do things with my family.”

Likewise for Kirsten Mears, Penn State Lehigh Valley’s relatively new alumni director who worked previously in the health care industry. Mears had an associate’s degree which she worked toward as time allowed over the course of a decade — but she wanted to go further. Working in health care, PSU-LV’s health policy and administration major — and its flex option for working adults — was a perfect fit for her at the time.

“I could go online or attend classes in person as my schedule permitted,” she said. “But balancing work and school was still my biggest challenge: “The company I worked for at the time was a nonprofit, and I worked a lot of overtime. I was working 70 hours a week at times.”

Fortunately, Mears’ instructors were understanding. “I was completely transparent with my professors. They knew how many hours I was putting in at work and helped make my entire Penn State experience great. Their support made me want to stick with it.”

Aurora Taormina is also experiencing the unique journey of a nontraditional student — her story is that of a first-generation college student. Taormina’s parents came to the U.S. from Italy when they were just teenagers. “They originally came here just for vacation, but they ended up wanting to stay,” Taormina said.

She always dreamed of going to Penn State, but wanted to stay close to home for financial reasons. She found the best of both worlds at PSU-LV, where she is majoring in pharmacology and toxicology and will transfer to University Park in spring 2023. Balancing work, school, and family is an ongoing process for students like Taormina: “I am a full-time college student, taking 18 credits worth of classes, while maintaining a job and everything else! But I’m learning how to take time for my mental and physical health.”

Honer also takes time to round out his interests and activities and found a community of peers at PSU-LV. He currently serves as president of the campus’ Student Veteran Association — a group that gives back to the community. Their veteran-centric activities include the support of organizations like Tails of Valor, which trains dogs to be service dogs for veterans, and United States Marine Corps’ annual Toys for Tots drive.

As an Adult Learner Mentor, he finds satisfaction in helping fellow students from all walks of life. “College is generally geared towards 18-to-22-year-olds. Me, coming in at 36 years old…I’ve been through a lot more. Being in the military, I’ve learned things. I can advise the younger students, and maybe I can help if they’re having a problem.”

Honor also encourages adult learners to follow their dream. “Do it — it’s in your best interest,” he said. “Right now, I’m showing my kids that it’s never too late. I can get my degree and make it better for my family.”

In her role, Mears also encourages any adult considering a degree to go for it. “Finish your degree as a nontraditional student, it’s worth the risk — it’s going to take you further in your career.” 

Mears gave particular kudos to the PSU-LV veterans who showed up on the front lines and still pushed through to earn their degree. “This is a really close-knit campus. The faculty is genuine and passionate about their work with students — getting them to the next step. It’s a good campus if you’re a working student or nontraditional student because of faculty’s willingness to work with you.

"There is also a lot of opportunity in the Lehigh Valley, whether employment, internships, or just networking. There are over 9,000 PSU-LV alumni in the Lehigh Valley," she added.

Melissa Baker, coordinator of student services at PSU-LV, said nontraditional students, with their can-do attitude and commitment to their studies, are an inspiration to all. “These students have shown how determined they are to earn a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “It means extremely strong time management between schoolwork, family, and working at a job. As they interact with the traditional students in the classroom and at on-campus events, they share their experiences and world views which may be different from the traditional students. This diverse population benefits everyone on campus because they introduce new ideas and open new dialogue.”