'Non-trad' becoming the norm

More than 20 years ago, Gina Scaccia of Medford spent a year at college on a full scholarship. But her collegiate career ended when she got pregnant. "When you have a child, your priorities change," she said.

Today, the 45-year-old who works full-time as a hair stylist in Ashland is finally pursuing her dream of earning a music degree. Scaccia joins the more than 800 other non-traditional students at Southern Oregon University between the ages of 25 and 50 working on their first bachelor's degree.

Matt Stillman, director of enrollment analysis at SOU, said, "Like everything else, the times change. The days of a college campus being full of recent high school graduates are over. Our youngest student is 15 and our oldest is 84."

One of the changes the university has done recently to better reflect its diverse student population, is to do away with the term "non-traditional student."

Pam Ogren, coordinator of SOU's Commuter Resource Center, said, "When people hear the term non-traditional student, they only think of "older" students. When in fact, we're also referring to students who are married, divorced, have children, who are independent of their parents or haven't been in college for a while. We felt "commuter students" was more respectful and inclusive. It refers to any student not living in the residence halls, which accounts for 80 percent of our nearly 5,000 students."

"The change has helped professors understand that not every student in their class is leaving the classroom, going to their dorm room and studying," she said. "Many of our students are juggling multiple responsibilities. Some have to

commute quite a distance; some have households and yards to maintain, partners, families, jobs and other obligations such as church and volunteer activities."

Stillman said this large block of students are breaking stereotypes with their success.

"There was an assumption out there that this group wouldn't do well," she said, "but we've found that they do quite well. They take a very serious approach to their studies and they tend to graduate. SOU appreciates this group and what they bring to our campus."

Ahavah Oblak is one of those students wearing multiple hats. The 40-year-old mother of four from Ashland started at SOU this fall to study for her master's degree in the English Speakers of Other Languages program. Oblak, who also works two part-time jobs, hadn't been to college for 18 years.

"I was quite nervous, especially about how much computers are used today. It's daunting how much more we use them today then we did back when I was in college the first time."

Oblak said she often brings her children to campus, and that the Commuter Resource Center feels like a home away from home. The center has grown from a little room in the basement of the student union, to an expanded space upstairs with a computer lab, lounge, fax and copy center, kitchenette, napping chairs and a play area for children.

"A lot of the time, my kids are here with me at the center. We'll all sit at the same table doing our homework. I think it's a real positive thing for kids to see adults making changes in their life paths. Going back to college was a real confidence booster and my kids are very proud of me."

Ben Williamson, 27, grew up in Ashland, but for him, the SOU campus was just a place to ride his bike. "I watched a lot of my friends graduate from here, but I never thought I'd be a college person."

Williamson, now an art major at SOU who hopes to become an art teacher one day, said his wife Gwyn was his inspiration.

"She was a student here and working in what was then called the Non-Traditional Student Center," he said. "She just gave me the confidence that I could do this. But my first day here I was so nervous, I almost didn't go."

Williamson, a father of two sons, said, "It's definitely an adventure being in college with kids. But the center is great. There are other resource centers on campus and the library, but I always have to shush the kids and try to keep them quiet. I bring my boys here and they're free to run around and play."

He said his professors have been "awesome. My youngest was born premature and my professors were great about giving me extra time to finish papers."

Val Baldock, 38, said he had horrible grades in high school and didn't think college would ever be in the cards for him. "I was married, 28 years old and washing dishes at Shari's in Medford. I knew I had to improve my situation. That's when I enrolled at Rogue Community College."

It was at RCC when Baldock was first diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.

"My life improved almost immediately. It helps to know what I'm dealing with. My remedy is to only take a couple classes a semester. When I graduated from RCC, I thought, 'What the heck? I might as well keep going'."

Baldock, now a father of a 19-month-old son, is studying for a bachelor's in human services at SOU and plans to graduate this spring.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or .

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