Today, the traditional student generally starts college immediately after completing high school. Many of these students complete the 4 year tenure and emerge with a bachelor's degree. Donna Talarico, however, is a non-traditional student. The Pocono Mountains native graduated high school in 1996 and went straight to college, taking on a full-time workload as well as taking advantage of the many other opportunities that college provides.
Shortly into her college career, that abruptly changed.
Author of the book "Kids, have you seen my backpack? And Other Inspirational Stories of Nontraditional Students", Ms. Talarico quit college after her second year as she pursued a full-time career in radio, with the mindset that a degree wasn't absolutely necessary. Years later, she decided that completing her degree would be necessary in order to further her career. Ms. Talarico, an adult student at Wilkes University, offers her encouraging story and some excellent advice for those considering going back to school.
Tell us a little about yourself? Where did you grow up? What happened after high school?
I grew up in the Pocono Mountains of Northeast, PA. After graduation in 1996, I began college as a communication studies major at Wilkes University. I became one of the most active students on campus: campus TV station and radio station, newspaper, student government, etc. plus I had already started working part-time at a local radio station as a promotion assistant, part-time D.J. (overnights) and sometimes even dressed up as the station mascot. I loved school and loved the radio station.
My sophomore year, I rented an apartment with three friends and with that came more responsibilities. It became my true home, whereas my other roommates still have their parents' support.
What factors contributed to your decision to quit college?
To be honest, opportunity knocked and I opened the door. It was the thrill factor. When I was offered a full-time promotion director job, I left school with the attitude that I didn't need a degree to get a radio job. I was not focused on my education at the time. I was more worried about my part-time airshifts and I think that is what I needed at the time. To live, learn, and grow up.
What field(s) or career(s) did you pursue after you quit college?
From 1998-2001 I worked in radio promotions. I helped concoct exciting on-air contests (with lots of clever, play-on-word names), station promotions, fundraisers, worked with record label people and concert promoters on artist events… It was a total blast. It was a fun, fast-paced life that I sometimes miss dearly. That's the nutshell version, of course.
In 2001, I left the radio station to pursue writing. I had begun freelancing in the meantime. However, I couldn't find anything full-time, so I continued to freelance for The Weekender (an alternative weekly) and became a stringer for their daily sister paper, The Times Leader. But I still had that apartment, so I worked a series of odd jobs to pay the bills for about a year.
In 2002, I started working as an admissions representative at a career school. After two years of enrolling - okay, “selling education” – to mainly adult students, I was inspired to return to school myself. I went back part-time first, and then full-time. The school wouldn't schedule me around classes, so I quit again. Thankfully, my significant other is committed to helping us financially.
What kind of job experience did you get/what "lessons" did you learn after quitting college?
I learned SO much! I learned that what I did was not a mistake. I don't ever regret it. Being back in the classroom and having real world experience helps me to better understand the things I am learning because I can apply them to my real past and present life. I feel that I contribute a lot to my classmate's experience too since I have a classmate who has already went on a wild ride.
I also learned that I still have a lot to learn, and that my “real world” experience doesn't make me any better than anyone sticking out school for the first time. I just have some notches on my belt already. When we all enter the real world (for me, again) we can learn and grow by watching each other.
I also learned that in my field, for entry level work in certain areas, the degree may not matter. But in the long run, it really does… Especially if you want to move up or work for a larger company. In all of the mentoring to younger students that I've done -- I don't officially do that, I'm just talking about candid class discussions where I can share an experience -- I learned that I like to teach and subsequently applied to grad school so I can eventually teach journalism.
What factors contributed to your decision for then return to college?
When I enrolled, it was from seeing people who were talked out of going to school by a spouse or by their parents; who were ruled by a drug or alcohol addiction and were getting their lives back on track; by a single mom who devoted her life to her kids and is finally doing something for herself it's those stories and situations. I saw them scared to death, crying in my cubicle, and then saw them crying happy tears at graduation. I reached inside and pulled out my own desire to finish. I didn't have those obstacles, yet I wasn't going back. Now, here I sit!
Returning to college at an age where most people have already graduated and started their careers, was there any type of initial "shell-shock"? If so, how did you deal with that?
There was no real shock since I had worked at a school that was geared towards nontraditional students. But sometimes I did feel intimidated by the youth. For example, I've learned that I have no style… None. I dress boring. But then I remember that I am 27.
When I first started back, I always made it clear to people how old I was, which I think may have made me stick out. When I came back after summer vacation to start this year, I never mentioned it and just blended. That worked much better. I don't think I've ever stood out as a “Miss Know it All”, because I'm not. I ask a lot of questions though.
Attending college now, do you feel more incentive to work and study harder that you would have if you had never quit college?
I feel more incentive to finish, but I'm not going to lie: I work hard on papers and projects. But the actual studying - I'm still the same old crammer.
Is it difficult to attend classes with considerably younger students?
I feel that I have a youthful curiosity about me and I think I blend in well. Sometimes, in heated class debates, I have made eye contact with the professors about a level of immaturity being displayed — but for the most part, the students I have classes with are pretty grown up. When they talk about apartment parties, however, I do feel left out.
What are the major differences, which you can see, between college then and college now?
I think I am the same, but less school activities. I am not ruled by meetings, parties or other school events. I am just ruled by my homework. I do have my freelance writing for the paper, which can take up a lot of time. I guess the biggest difference is that a have a lot more invested this time. I gave up a full-time job where I was well paid. So, I am more focused on the end result, rather than the process. I am more proud of my accomplishments now, because I came back to finish.
Are you more involved with on campus activities now? What steps are you taking to make sure that you get the most out of your experience?
I feel like I have a good camaraderie with students at the classroom level, but it stops there. I'm older and I'm a commuter. However, being the A&E editor of the school paper has given me an outlet to get silly with my peers - something I need.
I spent every Sunday this year putting together the school paper. It's a lot of fun to be in a room with the people on campus who are most like me. Six of us had the chance to go to NYC for a college media convention and it was there that I truly felt like a college student again. We painted the town! It was the most bonding I did since I've been back. I have two Beacon Sundays left. I am going to make the most of them. I hope me and those Beacon friends get to see each other in the media circle once we're all done.
What major(s) are you currently pursuing and why?
I'm still taking up communication studies - journalism to be exact. Just like the first time, I wanted to tell stories that are in everyone and everything. I am curious and I like to write. But now that I have an interest in teaching, I may go a step further and work toward a PhD so that I can teach college full-time, but not without paying my dues as a full-time journalist for a while.
How long do you feel it will take to meet your goal? Are you in any type of accelerated classes or taking any online courses?
I take no accelerated classes. When I came back initially part-time, I did take some teleclasses at a local community college and one online class. Since I came back full-time, I've just been doing it the old-fashioned way; the best way. For my MA, the New School University has an online version of their media studies program for which I applied.
Do you have any advice or guidance for other non-traditional students out there?
The biggest advice I can give is do not, under any circumstances, listen to the nay-sayer. The nay-sayer(s) could be your spouse, your sibling, your parent(s) or your boss. Either they are jealous of you, jealous of the people (opposite sex) you will encounter, or they are scared of losing you. At the school which I worked, I saw so many people enroll in a 7 ½ month program who didn't ever show up. They avoided my calls because they didn't always have a reason to give me. I've had some people come back later and explain the situation—that they were talked out of it. I am not saying dump someone or disown your parents, but rule your own life.
My second piece of advice along with that is to find another support network outside of your home and work life. Make at least one friend to study with, or have a coffee with. Find a professor you relate to and can talk with often. You need positive support from someone who understands your goals and education. My boyfriend supports me, but not without questions all the time. He didn't go on to school, something I'd like him to do, but because of this it's sometimes hard to for him to understand. So, ignore the nay-sayers and find some yea-sayers!
For more information, visit DonnaTalarico.com.