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A mom, a student, a provider, a learner

The college life of a non-traditional student paving her way through life's unexpected path.

Shanece Bowman works full-time at Wellspan PhilHaven while also taking mainly online classes at Millersville. She went back to school to complete her dream of graduating college, as well as to create a better life for her son. Julia Walters/Snapper

Julia Walters
Associate News Editor

International Education Week

On a typical college campus surrounded by 18 to 21 year olds everywhere, it can be easy to forget that not all undergraduate students follow the typical, cookie-cutter example of graduating high school, going straight to a university, and completing a degree in four years. The path to getting a degree is not always straight and sometimes students go through many deviations in their plans before finding one that finally seems to work for them. One student who had to work to find her path is Shanece Bowman, a twenty-nine-year-old single mother who also works fulltime, while also completing a degree in social work.

While working toward her degree, she juggles a four-year-old son and working at least 40 hours a week as a Behavioral Health Clinical Assistant at Wellspan PhilHaven. She takes two online classes and a three-hour class Thursday nights. “I typically spend at least three hours every day to focus on my online classes on top of work and my three-hour Thursday night class.” This adds up to about 11.5 hours per day spent either working at her job or studying for class. Per week, this is at least a 40-hour work week in addition to studying 21 hours per week. For some students, this seems almost impossible, but to Shanece, she just considers this what she has to do for herself and her son. 

Her path was most definitely not straight, though she tried to make that general path work for her. The stigma that students have to go for their degree right after high school stuck to her and she tried college for a semester. “I graduated in 2007 and went to Bloomsburg right after high school. I wasn’t ready, I don’t think. The pressure of going straight to a four-year school kind of got to me, so I came home.” 

Though this isn’t talked about much, this mirrors many students’ initial college experience. The transition of going to college right after graduation can be riddled with rough patches and bumps that can completely derail students from their goals. 

Shanece, like many others, took a break from school before going to HACC for an Associate Human Services degree. After this, she went back to school again, this time to West Chester University. “I loved it…I went there for a year to finish my bachelor’s degree.” Then, more setbacks: “My mom ended up getting sick so I came home. I didn’t give up on my degree because I always wanted it, but I focused more on working, so I got my CNA… Then I did end up getting pregnant.” Shanece knew that she wanted to keep progressing in a career path so she tried nursing school; however, this proved to be difficult to keep up with as well. 

“I tried nursing school, but it was so hard and didn’t work out. He [my son] was getting older and it was time to do something else. I found the online degree completion program here at Millersville for social work and I’ve been so grateful.” This program allows nontraditional, working students like Shanece to complete their degree at their own pace with flexibility and a strong emphasis on online classes so that students can more comfortably complete their classwork alongside other responsibilities. Shanece loves Millersville’s program because it allows her to complete her goals while also working and being there for her son. “My goal is to graduate next fall. It’s perfect because I just can’t go to school full-time and work full-time. You don’t have to worry about enrolling in major courses because you’re already guaranteed a spot. For this, for now, and for my life, this works out well.” 

While this program is extremely helpful and flexible, being a single mother with a full-time job on top of completing her education is not without its obvious drawbacks. When asked about marginalization between her and the traditionally younger college students, Shanece feels detached and isolated. “I still do feel disconnected. I would love to be more involved but I just don’t have the time.” 

Despite feeling cut off from some aspects of college life, Shanece is still able to find connections with others going through the same path as her. Not only is the program helping her stay on track to gradate, but the camaraderie between the students in the program also provides a kind of unified support system. “It’s like a team, we just progress together. It seems to be a long journey for all of us. We all want to finish so bad and we just get it.”

While Shanece has some great support systems emotionally, finances are a different story. Shanece handles every bill herself. “It’s just me; I’m a single mom. I’m not on any kind of programs that help me out. I’ve asked for tuition assistance programs or single mom programs, but I got dropped from everything because I handed in my pay stubs and they were like ‘No, [you’re] $20 over the limit.’” 

Sometimes, it’s a wonder how she gets through week after week, but she just tries to make ends meet. “I’m very organized. I’m not much of a budgeter but I do try to put whatever is priority first. I’m always struggling with what to do and I’m somebody who doesn’t like to leave things undone.” 

Trying to balance her life, her education, and her finances proves to be quite the challenge but, for Shanece, she just looks at it from a practical standpoint and keeps pushing through to the next challenges: “I’m not super religious but somehow, some way, I always get through to the next month.”

Though there have been many times where Shanece stopped and started up degree programs, this time will be the one that lasts and gets her to her goal. Especially when she was at West Chester, she was only a year away from graduating but the focus on her degree fizzled out. “There’s been so many times I started and never finished that this time it’s like ‘You have to finish, you have to push through it.’ When I don’t feel like logging in or I think ‘Oh, I could skip that quiz’ because my GPA is really good too. But I don’t want to jeopardize that by sacrificing an assignment or two.” 

The pressure for high schoolers to go straight to college after graduating high school is immense. The truth is, even though society makes students believe that this is the only direction, that simply does not work for everyone, and that’s okay. 

The path in life isn’t always straight. It has sharp curves, bumps, and rough patches that are difficult to navigate. Recognizing that your path is not always going to be ideal is just part of the journey everyone is going through. Finding what works for you, despite your best intentions to stay on a particular pathway, is a complicated part of life. “There’s so much stigma and so much pressure with ‘right after high school, go straight to university, get your 4-year degree.’ Life doesn’t always work out as society wants it to. Some plans just aren’t for you.”

Shanece wants to make it known that just because you are an older, nontraditional student, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure or you never succeeded at your education. As long as you never give up on your goals, it doesn’t matter when you get to them. “That plan obviously didn’t work for me. I had things that happened that prevented me from completing my degree.”

What we plan in our heads versus what happens in reality, usually never ends up matching exactly. Life always has this tendency of getting in the way of our sometimes rigidly thought out plans. “I’m 30, I have a four-year-old son, and I’m a single mom. Did I picture my life would be like this? No, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not successful or you’re a failure. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to complete it, just as long as you never give up on completing it.”

The trials and tribulations that Shanece has experienced while in the process of getting her degree are nothing compared to the excitement she feels about finally finishing it. When talking about that light at the end of the tunnel, her face lights up and it is clear that nothing will stand in the way of her and this degree that she has worked so tirelessly for. “I have been trying to get this degree since 2007. It has been so challenging and the only thing I ever wanted to do was be a social worker, so I am very excited.” 

One thing Shanece makes sure she doesn’t do is let herself fall victim to her circumstances. “There’s a lot of self-pressure; I don’t like to see a C, I don’t even like to see B’s. I know that I’m capable of doing more that I’m not going to allow my situation to have my grades failing.” That confidence that she is capable of, not just passing but going above and beyond, is what drives her forward in her educational goals. “Either you’re going to do it and do it well or don’t do it at all. It’ll make me proud and make my son proud. I don’t want to think ‘I finished, but barely.’” 

Certainly, Shanece is a voice for nontraditional students. The strength and ambition she radiates come through with vivid colors. She is an ideal representation of the fact that college students are not all on the same straight and narrow paths. Pursuing your education is not a ‘one size fits all’ concept. Anyone can go for their degree as long as they keep themselves goal-oriented and focused. Education is a beautiful thing that is meant for everyone, not just a marginal few who are fresh out of high school. Shanece is also the depiction of what hard work and drive looks like.