By Elyse Pitkin

Dr. David Strukel, director of the Burton D. Morgan Center for Integrated Entrepreneurship and professor in the Scarborough School of Business and Communication, recently attended the 72nd International Communication Association conference in Paris, France to present research on nontraditional graduate students. The research, titled Predictors of Positive and Negative Experiences of Traditional and Nontraditional Graduate Students, studies what makes a good graduate program for nontraditional students pursuing higher education.

“We want to help others who are going to be in our shoes and going back to school to get an advanced degree,” said Strukel.

According to the International Communication Association (ICA), the goal of the organization is to advance the scholarly study of communication by encouraging and facilitating excellence in academic research worldwide. At the conference, Strukel presented his research at a poster session with hundreds of other fellow academics.

“You basically repeatedly give an elevator pitch for about ninety minutes as people walk up to you at different times,” said Strukel. “It’s a good way to openly pitch your research to people where they visually can see your research. They ask questions and can give direct feedback.”

Most people approaching Strukel commented on how his research “resonated” with them and how they felt “inspired.” He says, “There were great comments about what nontraditional students face and it really affirmed what I was doing.”

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) projects the number of individuals 30 years old or older going to college for any degree, will steadily increase through the year 2027, which holds true for full-time and part-time students. Strukel, along with his colleagues, doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, Linda White, and Associate Professor at Michigan State University, Saleem Alhabash, acknowledge current research showing that nontraditional graduate students face unique stressors returning to school for an advanced degree that traditional students do not have.

“One of the hardest things about our research was defining what a nontraditional student is. This includes age, parental status, how many dependents there are, full-time or part-time status, and financial support. There are so many things that make up a nontraditional student but we do understand that we won’t be able to cover every situation,” said Strukel. However, Strukel’s goal is to identify and include the most commonly occurring variables that define a nontraditional student or their experience as such.

From their study, Strukel and his colleagues discovered out of 266 participants, 57% male and 43% female, that nontraditional students scored higher than traditional students on all of their measure variables, indicating a more positive perception of their graduate education than their traditional counterparts, with the exception of negative emotions, job-related motives, and stress and anxiety. Self-fulfillment motivations were the single and strongest predictor of positive emotions for nontraditional students. The survey takes around twenty minutes to complete and measures negative and positive emotions, advisor experiences, research opportunities, career preparation, graduate education, and self—fulfillment motivations, to name a few. It is worth mentioning that nontraditional students experienced greater levels of research-related stress than traditional ones.

“In our study, we found that a lot of people who are nontraditional students, besides doing it for a career bump or bettering their position in life, want to feel accomplished with something when they return to school. It has a lot to do with self-efficacy,” said Strukel.

The study’s findings pointed to different experiences, attitudes, and perceptions of graduate education for traditional and nontraditional students. It appears that nontraditional students had more pleasant experiences during their graduate study that their traditional counterparts, with the exception of experiencing research-related stress. Thus, efforts should be made to enhance resources and preparedness for nontraditional students.

Strukel compares his personal experience in pursuing an advanced degree as a nontraditional student when observing his findings and comments that the one thing that helped him the most was having an advisor. He says, “when people say they are looking for higher education, I always say, find a great advisor. Find someone that can be a mentor, not for the schooling but for your life as well.” After returning to receive his doctorate at Bowling Green University and working full-time at the University of Toledo, Strukel depended on his advisor, Dr. Ewart Skinner, fully. “I felt comfortable going to him and asking him about issues at work, or how I should go about creating new programs along with the questions about my studies. He was like a father figure to me as well as an advisor,” said Strukel.

Moving forward, Strukel plans on continuing his research by broadening his sample population, utilizing several social media groups that cater to nontraditional groups, and eventually publish a book. He says, “I want to make sure what I am doing has social significance outside of academia. If there is a nontraditional student looking to go back to school and finds my paper or eventual book, I want them to feel like they can relate to this and page through to find something that is written to help their situation.”

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