Advantages of Being a Non-Traditional Grad Student

I’m a non-traditional SLP grad student who gained my post-baccalaureate credits through an online program while working full time. Before starting grad school, I knew I wanted to become an SLP, but was unsure whether my non-traditional background would be a burden or a blessing.

Around this time, I remember seeing a meme where everyone is in gray school uniforms, sitting up straight at their desks. In the middle of the room was a flamboyant character wearing a pink fur coat and stacked go-go boots. The caption read, “When there’s a non-CSD major in your graduate program.”

This hit me hard. I felt like everyone was going to know I didn’t “belong,” and I wouldn’t have the knowledge to succeed. The anticipation of starting my program as a “newbie” to the field, but at the same time, an “oldie” compared to the others in my program, was scary.

Deciding On a Life-Change

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in child and family studies, I felt like a million bucks when I landed my first job as a research assistant. I learned more than I could have imagined in a short time and was surrounded by smart, thoughtful people.

Unfortunately, the cubicle life wasn’t a good fit for me. So, I switched it up and spent the next three years working directly with students in afterschool programs and as a classroom assistant. I adored those days. I worked directly with children of all ages—assisting with projects, guiding book groups, supporting social emotional learning, and demonstrating peaceful conflict resolution. I enjoyed my day-to-day and realized that I longed for something more.  

I began researching career paths that bring people together and provide opportunities for continuous learning, growth, and information gathering. While I loved the face-to-face work with children and parents, I wanted to find a path that would prove to be emotionally rewarding, provide opportunity for work in a variety of settings, and challenge me to problem solve each day. I began taking online classes and worked my way into the CSD graduate program at Saint Xavier University in Chicago.

Realizing My Path Might Actually Be Advantageous

I quickly learned that my non-traditional path to becoming an SLP was going to be challenging at times but would ultimately provide some real advantages.

There were some small learning curves:

  • I only had a basic knowledge of phonetics, audiology, and typical speech-language development.
  • I hadn’t been saturated in CSD terminology for the past four years, so it felt like everyone was speaking a different language.

But during my grad admission interviews, I never once pretended to be more knowledgeable than I was. Instead, I connected my interview questions to my real-life work experiences. To my surprise, faculty members were less concerned with the nitty gritty knowledge I was coming in with, but rather the ability to think critically, demonstrate empathy, and problem solve. And believe me, grad school will quickly get you up to speed on the nitty gritty!

To prepare before starting my classes, I read the first chapter of each of my books, dug up podcasts hosted by SLPs, and bought a second-hand CSD terminology guide.

When classes began, I preprinted the PowerPoint slides for each class and took hand-written notes. There’s empirical evidence that suggests you internalize information quicker if you hand write notes … and as someone who was absorbing large quantities of new vocabulary, that was helpful!

My approach to the academic workload differed from some of my peers—I was less focused on my grades and more focused on understanding what the material would look like implemented in real life. I focused less on the short-term, and more on the end game.

Putting On My Go-Go Boots

It took some time, but I realized that the advantages of being a non-traditional student far outweighed the disadvantages…

  • You have a unique perspective and ability to see the big picture.
  • As a student clinician, and eventually as a licensed SLP, life experience will help you connect with your clients in a more empathetic way because you better understand their needs.
  • Working outside of the field first gives you the chance to develop a clearer understanding of what you enjoy, what you’re good at, and where you want to be.
  • You have a better ability to divide your time between academic priorities and personal demands—knowing what’s important and what isn’t.
  • A perspective that you’re in your program to learn without the pressure of getting that perfect 4.0—learning is more than just the grade.

Returning to school as someone who’s already been out in the “real world” is a tricky transition, but I’m using my life experience as a guiding light. I’m embracing that pink fur coat and go-go boots from the meme that showcased my initial fears! If you’re a fellow non-traditional student, I encourage you to do the same. And if you’re a traditional student … learn from our experiences. They can be advantageous to you too!

7 Comments

  1. Avatar Monica Lieras September 3, 2019 at 11:39 am

    Thank you for this, Lily. I’m 51 and just now going back for my Bachelor’s in Comm. Disorders. While my hair’s not pink, it is grey, and that stands out even more! I’m very encouraged by your article! I’m going to keep on going strong until I reach my goal!

    Reply
    1. Avatar Robin Toon September 4, 2019 at 10:27 pm

      Monica, I ‘m 45 and just starting on my Bachelor’s in Communication Sciences as well. It’s definitely intimidating to be in a room full of 20 somethings but I’m loving it so far. This article is just what I needed to hear!

      Reply
    2. Lil Lil September 21, 2019 at 2:45 pm

      That’s awesome! Good luck on the journey- I am so glad this post resonated with you!

      Reply
    3. Avatar Tamra October 24, 2019 at 4:25 pm

      Thank you, Lily, for some great insights! Monica, I get the grey hair standing out! I turn 61 next week, and I start my CSD grad pgm in January. I’m so excited for the next chapter in my life! Most of the women in my family live independently until their late 90s, so I’ve got decades to go!

      Reply
  2. Avatar Monica September 4, 2019 at 10:46 pm

    Congrats, Robin! Good luck on your studies and be encouraged. This is a great experience for us!

    Reply
  3. Avatar Jules September 6, 2019 at 9:54 am

    Lily,

    This post is so well written! I loved hearing your perspective and I appreciate your honesty about your journey! When I got to grad school, I didn’t even realize how many girls go into this profession having majored in something else. It puzzled me at first but I think all the points you bring up are so true!! You will be an AMAZING SLP!!

    Reply
  4. Avatar Natalie September 17, 2019 at 9:00 am

    Love this story! I was 39 when I started and just turned 40. My background is business and finance, but after having my own child and beginning speech therapy with him, observing his therapists and all the countless others who also needed help, it began to call to me as a profession. I think this experience will absolutely help me better connect with parents. There is something to be said about the journey and I appreciate your article for all of us “older” ones out there!

    Reply

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