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‘Nontraditional’ students showcase a different Miami experience

By Tess Sohngen, Senior Staff Writer

Patrick Carroll designs his own board games. He plays the bassoon, electric bass and multiple percussion instruments. He was a street performer and stand-up comedian, is head tutor at the Rinella Learning Center and, like many undergraduates, does not know what he wants to do after finishing his bachelor's degree in physics.

Carroll is 31 years old.

"If we're talking about nontraditional students, I'm the most nontraditional of them all," said Carroll.

Although they may seem unusual, "nontraditional" students like Carroll are more common than some may think. According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, over a third of current college students are over 25.

After high school, Carroll became a musician in the Marine Corps in California and later worked as a journalist. Carroll then worked odd jobs until a change in Chapter 33 of the G.I. Bill made college affordable for him.

He started at Cincinnati State University, transferred to the University of Cincinnati, then to Miami's Middletown campus, returned to work for two years and finally came to Oxford last semester.

"It's hard for me to really assess Miami because it's hard for me to get involved … the facets of Miami I do participate in I mostly enjoy," said Carroll.

Getting involved on campus can be more difficult for older, nontraditional students because most student organizations - like Greek chapters - are directed at the younger student population.

"That means all my peers aren't really my peers in my age group, and all the people in my age group aren't in my class," said Carroll.

He and his lab partner call themselves "Team Outlier" because he is the oldest person and she the only female in the class.

However, older students like Carroll often have much busier schedules, despite the lack of events and organizations geared toward their age group

"I'm always busy," said Carroll. "My schedule is really rigorous. I don't have time to stop and look at the posters."

Between his 21 tutoring hours at Rinella Learning Center, 18 credit hour semesters and new responsibilities as the president of the Society of Physics Students, Carroll rarely finds an hour to relax. Sometimes he takes the Oxford-Middletown shuttle home so he can read his textbooks for his hour-long commute, and some days he has to skip lunch because he's too busy throughout the day.

No one understands a busy schedule more than Deputy Michelle Merz of the Miami University Police Department (MUPD). She works full time as a police officer, works part-time at the Butler County Jail and is a part-time graduate student.

"I've always had two jobs," said Merz. "There've been weeks when I've worked 40 hours here, 16 hours there, plus my classes and study time."

Her hours change depending on the week and leave only five to six hours for sleep per day, which is a comfortable routine for someone who has worked the third shift for 18 years.

Merz left her old job at the county jail almost nine years ago to work at Miami so that her two sons could be eligible for benefits for college. Her sons didn't choose to come to Miami, so Merz - like five other officers from MUPD - decided to take the opportunity to further her own education.

"If it comes up, and I want the opportunity, I want to be qualified," said Merz.

She returned to classes this semester after 20 years outside of school to study political science with a public administration concentration. Although she doesn't know what she wants to do with her master's degree, she likes the variety of possibilities the degree affords her.

"Once I graduate from my master's program, I don't know what I'm going to do because I've always had something going on ... even after retirement in seven or eight years, I can't see myself just not doing anything," said Merz.

She's considered a wide variety of post-grad career paths - working at a school, scoring a job with a Fortune 500 company, becoming the MUPD police chief, or maybe just retiring and hanging her master's certificate on the wall of the home that she shares with her husband and three dogs.

Carroll, although unsure of what he wants to do with his physics major, is considering teaching after graduating.

But the path to graduation is much longer for these nontraditional students. Although he has senior status based on his number of credit hours, Carroll is considered a sophomore in the eyes of the Physics Department. Merz will not graduate from her 30 credit hour master's program until December 2017 or later.

Not only do these older students have less time in their schedule and more time until graduation, but they also have more responsibilities than younger students.

Merz was a nontraditional student even as an undergraduate at Miami. She started her undergraduate degree when she was 18 and, by age 20, had her first son.

"That was stressful at that time, but it doesn't bother me that everybody's younger, because I've been young before, my sons are young, and I love working with young people," said Merz.

Merz's sons are now 22 and 26, and she recently became a grandmother.

"Having children prevents you from doing whatever you want all the time," said Carroll.

When he was 20, Carroll had his first son. He now has two boys, ages four and 11, who are inseparable regardless of their age gap.

"When you're 18, 19, 20 and you want to do all of those party-style things … I had a baby, so I didn't have that opportunity," said Carroll. "That didn't mean life was over, so I still have those opportunities now."

"I understand what it means to be an adult more," said Carroll. "I'm not going to say I'm an adult - I'll never say I'm an adult or understand what it means to be an adult, but I've been doing it longer than [younger students] have."

Carroll doesn't feel anxiety being older than everyone else and sometimes even older than his professors. Merz, too, was the oldest person in her Women in Public Administration class.

"This has been an awesome experience because some of the things we discuss and read has happened - I've lived it. I didn't know at the time that it was something, that it had a name," said Merz, referring to topics like government bureaucracy and the glass ceiling.

Merz said her classmates have been supportive of her, and some have told her how thankful they were to have her in the class and to have had the opportunity to hear about Merz's real-world experiences.

"I didn't realize I was going to be such a tool for everybody else. I thought I was going to be the one struggling," said Merz.