Lessons learned as a non-traditional student

by Holly Richardson

An African proverb says “Educate a man and you educate a man. Educate a woman and you educate a nation.

I grew up in a home where education was important. My dad received a Bachelor’s degree from BYU when I was a toddler, and a few years later when I was in first grade, my mother received hers.

Later, my dad earned a Master’s degree in Linguistics, and when my mother was a new grandma, she earned a Master’s degree in Education.  All of my five siblings have Bachelor’s degrees and several have Master’s degrees. I’ve been blessed that education is just something we do.

I am the oldest of the bunch. I left high school at 16, after my junior year, and went to college. At age 19, I had an Associate’s degree in Nursing from BYU and started working as a Registered Nurse. Then, I followed the path that many LDS women follow: I married and become a mom. Again and again and again, I gave birth to four children, and my husband and I also adopted 20 children, from 8 different countries, over a period of about 20 years. As you can imagine, I was REALLY busy with things at home for quite some time.

I loved (and still love) being a mom. I have learned things as a mother that I believe I personally could learn no other way: organization skills, networking, sales (did you ever try to “sell” a toddler on broccoli, or a teenager on chores? Mad sales skills, I tell ya. Mad sales skills), multi-tasking like a boss, budgeting, creativity, patience, work ethic (what’s a 40-hour work week? I have no idea).  Katherine Ellison in her book, The Mommy Brain, looked at the effects of a woman’s brain after becoming a mother. Certain factors are heightened, such as efficiency, resilience, emotional intelligence, motivation, and perception. It’s been a tremendous blessing in my life to be a mother.

At the same time, I always felt like I wanted to #EmbraceYourAnd and have other interests beyond my role of mother.  I have no question that I am a better mother because of the “other” things I have learned and done. I love to learn, and in fact, I believe life-long learning to be a key trait for all leaders. I’ve accumulated and read hundreds, if not thousands, of books. I’ve gone to seminars and conferences. I’ve “learned by doing” by learning to blog (many years ago), learning to be a midwife, learning the political process to the point that I won a special election and served in the Utah House of Representatives for a while, and learned to “play” in the communication space – traditional media, digital media, writing, speaking, you name it, I love it.

I always knew I would go back to college someday and finish a Bachelor’s degree. In May of 2014, 30 years after earning that first degree, I started back to school, pursuing a degree in Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations.

It took a little bit of getting used to – assignments, deadlines, homework for Mom and not just for kids. “What do you mean I have a 10-page paper due in two hours?” I completely missed quizzes in my first classes because I forgot to check deadlines online. Oops. I was worried when I started that it might be “too hard,” but I quickly realized that was not so, that the 30 intervening years had not been wasted.

Here are some of the things I found to be an advantage of a “non-traditional” student:

  • I learned that I already knew A LOT. All that reading and trying new things really paid off when I entered the more formal structure of a college class.
  • Knowing how to multi-task well and organize many spinning plates was an extremely useful skill while simultaneously going to school, raising a family and for half of my two- year journey to a bachelor’s degree, running a political campaign.
  • I learned that life experience helps anchor textbook learning.
  • I was not afraid to participate, to ask a question, or get clarification, something I never dared do as a teenage college student.
  • I learned that professors want students to be successful, and if you talk with them, they will help you! Shocker, I know.
  • I took college seriously. I was there because I wanted to be, and I was responsible for paying for all of it. You can be sure I was out looking for and applying for scholarships and grants. And I worked hard, because I did not want to have to retake a class!
  • I learned when I could work with background noise and when I could not, then asked for family support and got it.
  • I found that attending college as an adult was so much easier than college had been when I was a teenager. Except for statistics. That was like learning a brand-new, very foreign language. But even then, I worked hard, I got a tutor, and I earned a B. Yay!
  • I knew what I wanted and was willing to work hard for it.
  • I did not need to “find myself.” While we all have an opportunity to make changes, learn and grow, I started back to school with a very solid sense of self.
  • Managing stress is very different as a 50 year old than as a 20 year old. So many things I would have really stressed about the first go-round weren’t even a blip on the radar this time.
  • My kids became better at doing homework, at asking for help and at studying for tests because they saw me do it.

School wasn’t all rosy. Some of the assignments felt like meaningless minutiae. I wish there were more flexibility in waiving some basic classes for someone with 50 years of life experience. I was often the only one over 30 in my in-person classes, and that was kind of awkward. Most of the time, I was older than my professors. Some of the kids assigned to do group projects with me did not appreciate working with someone who had other things in life besides school and dating. Switching from writing in a casual, short-form blog style to long-form, annotated academic style was a bit of a struggle. Stats is still a struggle.

In the end, I graduated with honors, with that Bachelor’s degree in April 2016. In August 2016, I started a Master’s degree program. I was barely three weeks into it when I realized the questions I want to answer, questions about Mormon women as a muted group, will not be answered with a Master’s degree. When I told my husband, “Guess what? I want a doctorate.” He responded, “I knew you would. You might even want more than one.”

I try to live by this creed from Mark Twain: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didnt do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

I did it. So can you.


Holly Richardson is a wife, mother, Mormon, midwife, communications expert, political aficionado, lover of travel and learning, addicted to humanitarian service, Masters student and the Utah Women and Education Initiative Coordinator at Utah Valley University.

2 Comments on “Lessons learned as a non-traditional student

  1. This is like reading about myself, except I have just started, and I didn’t adopt 20 kids…! I’m pursuing a three year bachelor program in journalism, and have this feeling that I might never leave University… 🙂

  2. Enjoyed this blog very much. Very impress with your love of life and family. Lots of energy felt. Thank you

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