Ramapo helps nontraditional students overcome challenges

The traditional college experience — pursuing a bachelor’s degree within four years at one institution after graduating high school — is not possible for or appealing to all students. In many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred students to take part in nontraditional paths.

Carina Musanti originally enrolled at Rowan University to become a Spanish teacher.

“COVID hit during my fourth semester there,: she said. “My life at that point was extremely hectic and terrible.”

She took three years off, waiting until returning to higher education felt right. She came to Ramapo to follow the footsteps of the social workers she met during that period. 

Over 20% of bachelor’s degrees are completed in more than four years. Extra semesters are often required if students switch majors as upperclassmen, and nearly one in three undergraduates switched majors once or more.

Madison Case started out as a health science major at Chapman University, then switched to political science. “Over the pandemic I had a change of heart, and through taking classes at community college, I realized that psychology and social science was a better fit.”

Many students can relate to elements of their stories. More than one in three undergraduates transfer at least once before completing their degree. Many start at a community college, then earn a bachelor’s at a four-year institute to save money. About 30% of undergraduate students in fall of 2021 enrolled at two-year institutions.

Self-doubt is common among students who compare their progress to the traditional path.

Justin Chernick went to Bergen Community College before he came to Ramapo for social work. Adult college students like him make up about 33.3% of undergraduates.

“At the age of 45, you’re scared to go,” he said. “You build up this idea of what [college] is… and it turns out it’s not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. It’s definitely hard work, but I think learning how to use the tools that are provided to you and being a little bit more patient as an older student makes it easier.”

Nontraditional students experience unique challenges ranging from transferring credits to finding a sense of community. Higher-education institutions must adapt to their needs.

Assistant Director of Transfer & Veterans Nicole Pedoto works to empower nontraditional Roadrunners. “I always say that each transfer or nontraditional student is in their own unique box… They all need to be looked at individually and on a case-by-case basis to make sure that we’re getting them what they want and what they need to be successful.”

Pedoto advises Bergen Community College students who plan on transferring to Ramapo. “They’re looking for information on how to make sure they’re taking the right classes, how to make sure they’ll graduate on time or within a timeframe they’ve set for themselves, how much it’s going to cost. They want to make sure their credits are going to transfer and they haven’t wasted any time or courses.”

Transfer students continue to receive support after committing to Ramapo. Musanti said her advisor helped her with her schedule and taught her how to navigate her degree audit. “She explained the whole thing to me piece-by-piece and it was so glorious.”

Social support systems can be built by getting involved through clubs or on-campus jobs.

Case is the women’s outreach coordinator at the Women’s Center & LGBTQ+ Services. “That’s where I’ve found the most community not only within our staff, but with the students we interact with every day and through holding discussion groups,” they said. “Honestly, it has been the biggest sense of community I’ve felt at college since 2019.”

Chernick was the men’s outreach coordinator last year. His experiences in that position reinforced his decision to enroll. “I grew up very Christian conservative, cut off from the world and isolated, and it went against who I was. I found my place in life and followed it. I’ve found that when you don’t try to fit in and are just your authentic self, then you’ll know where you belong.”

Chernick flourished because of reinforcement from his wife and open communications with his professors.

“I had dyslexia and I have learning disabilities, so my personal belief in what I was capable of was very low,” he said. “Having a great partner in my wife, someone who’s a school teacher and educated, gave me that extra nudge and helped me believe in myself… Now I’m three classes away from graduating with a 4.0 GPA.”

Self-doubt is common among students who compare their progress to the traditional path.

“Many students take a nontraditional path and graduate a semester late or a year late, and it doesn’t stop them from being able to achieve their career goals,” Pedoto said. “Just because you’re graduating later doesn’t mean you won’t be able to have a great career trajectory or accomplish the things you want to accomplish.”

Case reiterated the core sentiment. “It’s not real. It’s made up. If you don’t pay any mind to it, then it won’t have power over you.”



 Featured photo courtesy of RDNE Stock Project, Pexels