Non-traditional students navigate life and student struggles

Non-traditional students balance full-time jobs, kids and classes


Sindi Leak has tried attending college before. Now with a full-time job, a husband and six kids, Leak is working to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Health Services. 

The Stanton senior is taking six credits while balancing her work as a manager for a pediatrics office 46-48 hours a week. 

“Right now I do all the work that somebody with a degree much higher than what I hold does; I just don’t have the paperwork to show that I do it," Leak said. "I know nothing is guaranteed, and if for some reason I should ever not be with the employer that I am, I wanted paperwork to back my skill set. That is my driving force for where I am currently."

Unforeseen events in life can deter people from finishing their degrees. Whether it is a personal, family, or financial situation, earning a bachelor's degree in four years can be difficult.

“I went to college right after high school, but a number of reasons took me away from that," Leak said. "There was a car accident I was involved in, so it was a medical reason at first and then I got married.” 

Senior Sindi Leak plays with 7-week-old kitten, Clementine, in her home Nov. 1 in Mount Pleasant.

The expected demographic of a college student is an 18-22 year old American living in on-campus housing. A non-traditional student is any person enrolled in classes who doesn't fit into the expected college student demographic. They often have unique experiences most college students do not face. CMU breaks this stereotype in the form of non-traditional students. 

The first higher-education institution Leak attended was Ferris State University. Once she recovered from her car crash, she got her Associate's degree at Montcalm Community College.

Starting school for the third time was difficult for Leak. With a job and responsibilities at home, school seemed more like a large obstacle rather than an opportunity. Leak said a solid support system has helped her balance her life.

“I have a lot of home support and that’s a good thing” she said.

Though five of her six children have moved out, Leak and her husband Michael keep busy with their 5-year-old cat, Cheddar and 7-week-old kitten, Clementine. 

Albania graduate student Eliona Balilaj also found it challenging to go back to school following a break. After working for 15 years as an English translator in Albania, Balilaj decided to come to the U.S. to further her education. She is a full-time student obtaining her master's in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages). 

Outside of classes, Balilaj is a graduate assistant and teaches English 101. She finds the balance between a traditional job and the schedule of college life difficult, especially since she is away from her friends, family and culture back home. 

Eliona Balilaj teaches her class on Oct. 31 in Anspach Hall.

Balilaj said she chose to study in the U.S. to apply her knowledge in an English-speaking country. 

"CMU provided me with the opportunity to teach and provided me with a graduate assistantship so I get to experience what I’m learning about," she said. "In my home country it would have been similar but so different in so many other ways.” 

Through CMU’s master’s program, Balilaj is required to teach ENG 101 through the English Language Institute for two years to pay for her education. She must balance her responsibilities as a professor in her department as well as her classes as a full-time student. She said it's both easy and difficult to keep her schedule organized.

"On the one hand it’s easy because I have a lot of experience teaching," Balilaj said. "In a way it is like practice for my own studies." 

On the other hand, she said, it's sometimes difficult to decide when to stop preparing to teach in order to prepare for a class she's taking. 

Although most students view college as as a check on a to-do list, 73-year-old Freeland Senior Auditor Jean Winther takes classes for fun. Because she is registered as a senior auditor for Central Michigan University, Winther gets to attend classes at CMU for free. Class attendance, coursework and grades are completely optional. 

Jean Winthers poses in her apartment on Friday, Oct. 26.

Although she already has two Master’s degrees — one in Religious Education and the other in Divinity — an undergrad study of Bachelor’s in Education and has raised a daughter, Winthers still continues to attend college. 

“Once I got in college, I couldn’t get out. I just kept going and I like it now,” Winthers said. 

Winthers has been attending CMU since 2011. She began classes after she retired from her position as a minister. She held the position for 25 years. 

Winthers has chosen to take one class in the fall and summer semesters, and has taken a total of seven classes in this way. 

“Most students, they go ‘why?’ but after you get out... you don’t have all the pressure of trying to get deadlines or anything, you just have to come and be involved," Winthers said. "I think part of it is staying young by being with younger students; it helps me keep my mind living and touch some of the things I’m interested in but don’t pay attention to normally."

Outside of her job as a senior auditor, Winthers in an active member in the community, volunteering as a receptionist and wayfinder at Mid-Michigan Medical Center, and volunteering at the John H. Goodrow Fund. Withers said being a senior auditor has many benefits, one being the freedom to choose all aspects of the education she can receive. 

“It’s my power; it’s up to me. It’s not according to what they require for me or anything. I don’t have a study path. I just have interest” she said.