Working degree seekers: The new college norm

The University of Alaska Anchorage is a commuter campus, which means that a good chunk of the student body is made up of working degree seekers, or nontraditional students. Those students, who are older, often with children at home, managing a job around their class schedule, adapt as best they can to balancing college life, but say that the university could do more to help.

Christian Alversado, a senior philosophy major, balances working fulltime,
going to school and managing his life at home while pursuing a bachelor’s
degree. Photo by Kate Alversado.

Christian Alversado is a 24-year-old philosophy major who began attending UAA in the fall of 2014, right after graduating high school. Going into his sixth year of college, he has maintained working full time at various jobs. The most recent is at a lab as a specimen processor.

“I balance work, school, a relationship and self-care. Spending time with yourself like binge-watching a show on Netflix or taking yourself out on a date, that’s important,” Alversado said.

Alversado’s motto in life, fitting to his major, is “question everything,” which leads to his many questions about the lack of resources the university provides to nontraditional students. Scholarships are one aspect he is disappointed with. Oftentimes, when applying for a scholarship, one of the requirements is to be in some sort of leadership role in a campus organization, he said.

“I get that part [of the application], but like what if there are people out there who are mothers and fathers? Sometimes they don’t have time to go to school and volunteer for all the stuff that’s required. What if it doesn’t work with your work schedule and you can’t take the time off?” Alversado said.

Financial aid is another resource at UAA that Alversado says comes up short for nontraditional students. To be able to support himself financially, he has to maintain a job. Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, requires any student who is under the age of 24 to include parents/guardians on their application even if they are not receiving any support from them. Due to the requirement to include his parents’ income, Alversado

does not qualify for financial aid.

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Alversado said that his mental health has been greatly affected by his busy schedule. With juggling school, work, a relationship and trying to make time for himself, he has felt alone. But he wants anyone feeling this way to know that “even if you feel like you’re alone, just know that you count as a person and you’ll be OK.”

Sandra Saetern, a sophomore accounting major, asks UAA for increased
communication with nontraditional students who may miss messages by not being frequently on campus. Photo courtesy of Sandra Saetern.

Business accounting major Sandra Saetern is a freshman who returned to UAA after taking a few gap years. Currently, Saetern works at Odom Corp. in the sales department. She began her time at UAA back in fall of 2015, originally as a business management major.

“Spring of 2016, that’s when I questioned if I was really passionate about this. Is this what I really want to do in life? On top of that, it didn’t feel right going to school. In 2017, I took that year to try and travel around,” Saetern said.

“By 2019, I decided I’ve done a lot in my life and know what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. Realistically, with my business accounting, I know the type of person that I am. I can use that accounting degree and go help small business owners. I love Alaska so much and supporting small businesses is something I want to do and my way of contributing toward that,” Saetern said.

During her gap year, Saetern was able to explore and find what her interests and passions were. Most importantly, she discovered how to maintain a balance of her school and work life.

“[This balance] taught me that whatever I don’t get done at work it’s fine, it’s just a job. I can come back the next day and slam it out. It helps me prioritize my time. When I’m at work that’s all I worry about. Same with school,” she said.

Her definition of a nontraditional student is someone like herself: a working student earning an income to support themselves, or a student who may not have the ability to attend school full time due to life circumstances. One area Saetern would like to see improved regarding nontraditional students is the university’s forms of communication.

“If it weren’t for my friends telling me what’s going on around campus, I wouldn’t know. Yes, they send out emails and stuff about events, but it still lacks in that area,” she said.

An example Saetern provided was when she happened to be studying in the Multicultural Center. While she was there, the MCC announced an opportunity for a scholarship.

“It was nice cause I was there during the time of the announcement. But again, if I wasn’t there at the right time, I wouldn’t have known about it. They’re not really promoting well outside of campus,” she said.

Saetern would also like more variety offered for class times. Currently, the majority of Saetern’s classes are GERs because of the different requirements when she changed her major program.

At the end of the day, a degree is what every college student is seeking, Saetern said.

“People live different lives. Being traditional or nontraditional is fine, you just want to let them know ‘hey, I’m back in this course and we’re all striving for that one degree.’ If it takes me XYZ to get it, that’s fine, we’re still going to get there,” Saetern said.