Nontraditional students find community at LC

Photo courtesy of Jen Bennet

By Mia Eichel

Most Lewis & Clark students begin their college experience right after high school. However, some students come to LC after having other formative experiences in the nonacademic world. These experiences can range from pursuing a career in stock brokering to serving time in prison.  

Lukas Soto ’20, a nontraditional student who came to campus this fall, endured many transformative circumstances before enrolling at LC. Soto dropped out of high school his sophomore year and moved to Chile, where his family is from. Soto got his GED when he returned to the United States in 2007. He also got married and had a son right after he turned 18.  

During this period of his life, Soto struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. His addiction landed him in prison twice. During his second term in prison, he realized he needed to make major changes in his life. After his release, Soto began hormone-replacement therapy and got divorced. He also went into recovery after struggling with homelessness and additional drug abuse. Soto will be four years sober in November.  

After his recovery, Soto decided to go back to school, hoping to have a better experience than he had in high school. He enrolled in Portland Community College in 2015.  

“It’s been really fun,” Soto said. “I am so grateful to be doing my college experience as an adult. I think I have a much better relationship with, and understanding of, myself. Looking back at my 18 year old self, my world was so small. Now I know the things that I’m good at. I know what I’m passionate about. As an older person I can make better choices about how I want to spend my time and get a good experience out of my education.”

Soto said that one of the hardest parts of being a non-traditional student is being surrounded by people who are younger than him. This is why he finds it helpful to have a space like the Association of Nontraditional Students (ANTS), where older students can meet people in similar situations.

ANTS was established at LC in 1993 and has since served as a space for nontraditional students (most of whom live off campus) to rest during the day, store their food, make coffee and organize events with other nontraditional students. A nontraditional student is typically someone who is over the age of 24 or a veteran or is married or has children.  

“I sought out the ANTS when I got accepted to LC because I knew I was coming into a school that was mostly 18-22 (year olds)… I would stick out like a sore thumb,” Jen Bennett, the president of ANTS said.

In 1993, when Bennett dropped out of high school, the economy was booming. She got a job as an assistant at a stock brokerage firm in New York and worked her way up to management over the next 10 years. She was well-paid in corporate America, but eventually realized that she wanted more.

“I wanted to do something that mattered and that helps people directly.” Bennet said. She received her GED when she was 29, and spent the following decade dividing her time between work and school. She decided to apply to LC when she heard about a scholarship for nontraditional students.  

“Every NTS has an interesting story,” Bennett said. “We’ve lived lives before coming here.”

Katie Mitcheltree ’19, attempted college right after high school but ended up dropping out.  

“I graduated high school when I was 17, so in retrospect, I probably could have benefitted from a gap year,” Mitcheltree said. She ended up moving to Germany, where she has family, to work as a nanny. When she came back to the U.S., she met her husband and had two sons. She decided to come back to college when her kids were old enough to be in elementary school.

“I enjoyed being a stay at home mom but I was ready for something more, so I decided to come back to school,” Mitcheltree said.

After having a great experience at Portland Community College, Mitcheltree decided that she wanted more of an academic challenge, so she enrolled at LC.

Mitcheltree shared that when she came to campus for New Student Orientation, she went to the info desk to find out where to go, and she was sent to the parent preview. This slip-up did not sour her experience at LC though.

“One of the best things about being a NTS is that everyone is super friendly,” Mitcheltree said. “Now that I’ve gotten to know my classmates and other people here, I don’t feel stigmatized in any way. Our different life stations make our conversations that much more interesting.”

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