Approximately 30 years ago, then Dean of the School of General Studies Ward Dennis classified GS students as "nontraditional." Originally referring to "adult" education, the term has since become obsolete and, at times, even subversive—it represents a time when "adult education" was considered distinct from just education.
Now that we've reached the point of graduation, we've grown tired of the "nontraditional" categorization, as it's increasingly difficult to define "traditional" in the context of higher learning. The "entry delay" argument is immediately refuted by the fact that at least 11% of GS students enroll at the "traditional" age: 18-19.
Admittedly, we, as members of the GS student body, don't fit the definition of "traditional college student," exemplified by undergraduates at Barnard, Columbia College, or the School of Engineering and Applied Science. However, after 68 years of existence, the GS student body deserved more than being typecast as "nontraditional." We're better described as resilient, optimistic, diverse, and proactive. The antiquated moniker "nontraditional" is out of touch with how our student body is continually evolving.
The spectrum of backgrounds from which GS students hail is incommunicable. Despite our nearly 30 collective years as GS students, we still have difficulty grasping the breadth of experience our student body lays claim to. Knowing this makes it all the more frustrating when the greater Columbia community is so eager to summarize us into a single identity, ignoring that our student body is dynamic and ever changing. Furthermore, the lack of effort to understand GS students has made it easier for the Columbia administration to ignore our specialized needs. Specifically, our own GS administration could do better by presenting an accurate reality of what the GS student body is.
The GS admissions fact sheet describes nontraditional students as "students who have had a break of one year or more in their educational paths since high school." It continues, elaborating that nontraditional GS students are "… professional dancers, models, Olympic athletes, musicians, bankers, military veterans, programmers and small business owners." While it's true that some of us have done those things, distorting us into the "best of the best" belies the fact that many of us didn't learn through success, but instead through failure. It belies the fact that many of us don't fit into discrete demographics. It doesn't take into account that many of us have spent years roaming to find what "culture" best fits us. Moreover, some of us haven't had education gaps or life digressions. Our fellow GS students from joint programs like those with Sciences Po and the Jewish Theological Seminary aren't any less "traditional" than students from the other three undergraduate schools. We joke that they're our "nontraditional nontraditionals."
The miscategorization of GS elicits a need in our student body to justify why we're different. However, we hope that explaining our experiences can be seen less as a justification, and more as an argument for flexibility in the definition of higher education. What's lost in the rush to adhere to a "traditional" time frame is the sincerity of the process. This is where GS experiences differ from those of other members of the undergraduate community.
For GS students, any experiences that provide the opportunity to be labeled as nontraditional aren't seen as such, but are rather viewed as a natural step toward finding purpose in our education. The unfortunate consequence is that we often have to search outside the protective walls of the academic environment. However, our unorthodox journeys serve the same role for us as any class or extracurricular experience does for other undergraduates—they educate, and all education generally aspires to affirm direction and purpose in society. In that sense, we don't see ourselves as distinctly different from any other undergraduates.
The departure from the traditional frame of mind is where most GS students have found their hallmark. Outside of academia, a student is vulnerable in a vast number of ways, including socially and financially. Since each of our experiences is unique and unpredictable, learning to find solace in our shared humanity became a necessity of survival. With time, we learned that our human connection was ultimately our entire purpose.
We concede that we're different, but we're also not. As we've found through experience, labels of difference are paradoxical at best. There can't be a "different" when there was never a "normal." We aren't a check in a box. Nobody is. The necessity of defining a student by the boxes is a practice inherently administrative, and in the case of the Columbia administration, the attempt to capture diversity isn't helpful to the GS student body. It is, instead, detrimental. It propagates a misunderstanding of GS and a segregation of the Columbia undergraduate student body as a whole.
We're uncharacterizably eclectic. We aren't trying to redefine or appropriate the idea of the "traditional" college experience (although questions about our identity have persisted since the 50s). In fact, the majority of us don't want to be considered "normal."
From now on, it should be left for us to decide what we "are." Although it may be difficult to sort us into the boxes, there's only one label we want to be given: students. Other misconceptions should be left at the gates.
Note: This is part one in a four-part series dedicated to the lives of School of General Studies students.
The authors are students in the School of General Studies.
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