The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Non-traditional students follow degree dreams at UMW

5 min read
Student dressed in graduation regalia going up steps.

The BLS program accommodates non-traditional students’ paths to graduation by waiving some requirements. Abbey Magnet | The Weekly Ringer


Staff Writer

College life for traditional students is a full-time experience that consumes their day with studies, activities, sports clubs and all the perks that come with residing on or near campus. This is when many young adults leave home for the first time, meet new friends and make memories that last a lifetime.

For others, life may follow an alternate path. Some may enlist in the military to serve their country, and others might start families early or dive directly into the workforce due to personal decisions or life situations. 

For students on this less-trodden path, UMW offers the Bachelor of Liberal Studies Program to adult learners who want to earn a bachelor’s degree but have constraints that preclude them from participating in a traditional university experience.

To be admitted to the BLS program, applicants must meet at least one of the following requirements: be at least 24 years old as of the first day of the term in which they intend to enroll, be a veteran or active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces, financially self-supporting or have legal dependents other than a spouse.

BLS students can choose from a variety of majors within UMW’s College of Arts and Sciences as well as the College of Business. Such majors include: leadership and management, managerial economics, criminal justice and a student-designed special major. 

According to Fairbanks, there are 162 BLS majors at UMW, and 44 have declared the leadership and management major, a multidisciplinary major designed exclusively for the BLS program. Students may pursue this major entirely online, as all of the requirements have online options, though some offer in-person sections in the evening for students who prefer a hybrid schedule. Courses take place during a 16-week semester or accelerated 8-week semester, depending on the subject to accommodate the needs of non-traditional students.

According to BLS Associate Director Kristen Fairbanks, the general education requirements for the BLS program are more flexible than the other programs at the University. 

“BLS waives the requirement to study a foreign language and engage in career preparation and out-of-the-classroom experiences,” said Fairbanks. “We understand that the last time some of our students took a foreign language was sitting in their high school Spanish classroom some 40 years ago!” 

These accommodations reflect that the program seeks to work with students in light of their alternative situations. 

“We also recognize that they often have had careers, military service, or other experiences outside of college that make them different from a traditional 18-year-old coming to UMW,” said Fairbanks. “That experience is valuable, and BLS recognizes that.” 

Returning to school later in life can be very challenging and stressful, as many adult learners are working full time, managing households, raising families and burning the candles at both ends. There is not enough time in the day to get everything done, and having to think about doing coursework or commuting to campus to attend a class is an unrealistic expectation for many. 

“The main constraint for BLS students is time,” said Fairbanks. “Most of our adult learners are coming back to pursue their Bachelor’s degree while juggling full-time work, commuting, child care, and other family responsibilities.” 

Sean Kayton, a BLS student and veteran who served in the U.S. Army commutes about an hour from the UMW campus and works an hour north. 

“I often drive down after work to attend an evening class and then drive the hour home,” he said. “It is expected, but the challenge does become getting anything done on those days since it eats up the entirety of an evening.”

Phyliss Johnson, who is scheduled to graduate in 2025, compared the experience of being a BLS student to the act of juggling. 

“Juggling is a difficult task. A juggler is throwing things up in the air [but they are] only catching one object at a time and throwing it back into the air,” she said. “And, that is what we as adult learners must do. We need the mindset and determination to see it through regardless of what new obstacles may come into our lives. As an adult learner, our biggest constraints are brain overload and a full plate of work life and home life responsibilities.”

Kayton, who served in the U.S. Army as a signals acquisition and exploitation analyst, compared balancing work and classes to his training in his Military Occupational Specialty. 

“The training for that MOS was a good starting point since it was challenging and technical but not much different from taking a college course,” he said. “This special blend of time management is pretty similar to what I am doing now, and although it is still a stressor in my life, it made it something I have done before, thus less intimidating.” 

He continued, “I had already begun a degree while I was in the army, but life and career stress made me put it on pause. When I got a new job with a better schedule it was something I wanted to finish both for my personal satisfaction and for career growth.”

The major provides students with the necessary core management and advanced critical thinking skills required to be effective and intellectually agile leaders in today’s business environment. The peripheral courses in ethics, organization and communication round out the major, adding to the well-balanced foundation that students will obtain; this enables them to participate productively in the workplace and community.

“We’ve seen our students advance in government work, entrepreneurship, law school, and often see graduates go on to UMW’s MBA program, as well,” said Fairbanks “Some go into teaching, many into management roles, and some even work as freelancers in art, music or writing careers.” 

For students whose lives have taken them on a less traditional route, UMW’s BLS degree program gives them a chance to follow their dreams and complete their degrees. 

“Some of my family and friends ask me why now? You are almost getting ready to retire. You don’t need it because you have already worked all these years without it,” said Johnson. “My response: It has always been my lifelong dream to complete my degree! I am determined this time to achieve it. I am doing this for [myself].”