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'It's never too late': non-traditional students reflect on their UNC experiences

Adriana Cook is a UNC student who is graduating this spring as a "non-traditional", or grown adult gradutate.

The undergraduate college experience is often thought of as a transitional time into adulthood — a period for young adults to explore their identity and discover their aspirations. However, the undergraduate experience is not limited to those 18 to 22 years old.

Adriana Cook, a senior at UNC, enrolled when she was 59 years old. She said her experience has sometimes been alienating as her peers and professors are unsure how to approach her.

Regardless, Cook is confident that this is the right time for her to attend college. Last September, she celebrated 14 years of sobriety and overcoming addiction — a feat that started her on the path to higher education. 

“I couldn’t see that what I was doing was ruining my life at that time,” she said. “I think it’s important for younger students to maybe think about postponing college for a little bit — a year or two — to get some life experience and gain a better appreciation of school when they come back."

She added that she is "hugely grateful" for everything she has learned at UNC and doesn't think she would have appreciated the experience as much had she entered college at a younger age.

Cook’s past experiences with addiction have led her to dedicate her life to helping others in similar positions as her younger self. After graduating this spring, she plans to eventually become a substance abuse counselor. 

Her two years at UNC have not been easy. She’s been forced to deal with several health issues and the loss of a loved one. But she did not allow these factors to discourage her, and she said walking across the stage in her cap and gown at graduation will be vindication that her hard work was worth it. 

Preston Terleski, a 29-year-old senior, is also appreciative of his timing in college and said gaining experience in the workforce prior to enrolling at UNC helped him garner a strong appreciation for the college experience. 

Terkleski, along with Cook, encourages those outside of the traditional age to consider the possibility of returning to school. 

Mary Grace, another senior at UNC, is in her 60s and found herself in the Triangle when her husband sought medical treatment at Duke University. 

During the treatment, Grace said she felt she couldn’t return to work, but wanted something to focus on. She decided to take classes at Durham Technical Community College, and from there transferred to UNC a few years ago. 

When Grace was the traditional undergraduate age, she was unable to afford university past a two-year degree. She went on to lead a life filled with activism, with one of her core beliefs being that education should be universal and free. 

“If people were able to access education for as long as they wanted, then imagine how lovely the world would be,” she said. 

She also said she’s enjoyed her time at UNC and used the option of an interdisciplinary major to build a curriculum that would further prepare her for a life of activism. Her advocacy covers a broad range of issues related to social justice but emphasizes the need for nonviolent conflict management. 

“There's just such a desperate need for communication skills, and the psycholinguistic underpinnings of how we use words in conflict is really key to solving much of the world's problems,” she said. 

Grace said her experience at UNC has been a “gift and a joy.” Her time in college, along with the help of a support group, has helped her work through the grief that came with her husband’s passing.

“I don’t know what my life would have looked like had I been able to go to a four-year university at the get-go, but I know that this experience at UNC has pulled me full circle and I’m just profoundly grateful,” she said. 

Each of these students expressed a high level of appreciation for the higher education they are now receiving.

“I would say it’s never too late,” Terleski said. “I would say that you will find people who will support you throughout the journey. You will add value that other people of the traditional age are simply not able to add, because they haven’t had life experience.” 


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