I’m sure we’ve all heard how Russell Conwell founded Temple University in 1884 for workers to take night classes. While Temple’s first student demographic might not resonate with many of us today, Syreeta Martin and Haniyyah Sharpe, the founders of Temple’s Non-Traditional Student Union (TNTSU), would like for Temple to remember its roots.
TNTSU embodies the mission of the National Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education to “encourage and coordinate support, education, and advocacy for the adult learner.” Non-traditional students include adults that are returning students, transfers, veterans, first-time college students and parents.
Syreeta and Haniyyah are student-parents.
TNTSU is bringing the first ever National Non-Traditional Student Week to Temple’s campus from Nov. 7 to 12.
According to TNTSU, the week was started to “recognize the accomplishments of non-traditional students as they manage work, school, family and other roles they assume while attending college.”
TNTSU became an official organization in Nov. 2010, but Syreeta and Haniyyah have been fighting for their dream of a non-traditional student group long before that.
Haniyyah has had her fair share of difficulty as a non-traditional student at Temple. When she first contacted faculty, searching for advisor and information about starting an organization, a faculty member told her that her group, at the time comprised of five female, minority student-parents, “looked like a bunch of baby-mommas” (Haniyyah didn’t want to disclose the faculty member).
After the initial shock and offense, Haniyyah realized that many people, including faculty, do not have a good understanding of non-traditional students and the difficulty they face on campus.
Syreeta first realized there needed to be a group for Temple’s non-traditional students when she was almost kicked out of her Temple apartment with her children in Feb. 2010.
According to Syreeta, Temple sent her a notice that the family housing in the Triangle Housing Complex on Main Campus would soon close. A Pittsburgh native with no nearby family, Syreeta was determined to keep her apartment. She circulated a petition and quickly got about 300 signatures from other students.
According to Syreeta, President Anne Weaver Hart reached out to her with understanding and decided that family housing would not be discontinued.
“She told me that she was actually a student-parent in grad school, which really surprised me,” Syreeta said.
Although the housing scare was a close call, Syreeta walked away empowered and with invaluable contacts in administration.
“Michael Scales really encouraged me to start a student group,” Syreeta said.
Michael Scales, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Director of University Housing and Residential Life, has been a huge source of support for Syreeta and Haniyyah.
“Quite honesty (working with non-traditional students) has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my Temple career,” Scales said. “I find many non-traditional students to have interesting life stories and a tenacious spirit that is infectious. Those interactions fuel my desire to see them excel at Temple.”
Dr. Theresa Powell, President of Student Affairs, has also been an advocate for non-traditional students at Temple.
“Most colleges and universities today do not recognize non-traditional students as overtly as they recognize “traditional” students,” Dr. Powell said. “We need to be responsive to the needs and wishes of ALL our students.”
With unyielding determination and administrative support, Syreeta and Haniyyah are strong voices for non-traditional students. I asked them what their hopes are for non-traditional students at Temple. Both of their eyes lit up.
“You got more paper?” Haniyyah asked, with a wide smile but an intensity that told me she not kidding.
Temple Main Campus does not currently have many resources for non-traditional students on campus. While some schools have centers and classes specifically for non-traditional students, Temple refers non-traditional students to resources in Philadelphia.
Aside from physical goals like more night and online classes, TNTSU would like non-traditional students to be better represented and connected to Main Campus. They want Temple to realize that their circumstances are different than that of most students. For example, most students do not have to decide between staying home with their sick child and attending class.
“When I went to the financial aid office, they acted like one size fits all,” said Haniyyah. “It doesn’t, especially if you’re a non-traditional student. We would like there to be people who are trained to help us, we haven’t seen that demonstrated.”
Syreeta would like to see Temple become more aware of the diversity of the student experience in general, not only for non-traditional students. Bottom line: there are no “traditional students,” we all have different experiences and needs.
“I want there to be equal exposure for everyone to have a fulfilling experience,” Syreeta said. “I want our organization to reflect that anything is possible and we’re here for support.”
Temple Student Government is also trying to include more non-traditional students with their initiative “Non-Traditional Students Advisory Board.”
“We in TSG are committed to doing a better job of bringing opportunities to our non-traditional students and ensuring that their voices are well represented in our negotiations with administration,” TSG Student Body President Colin Saltry said.
Colin will be a guest speaker at the National Non-Traditional Student Week kick-off event, “Chat & Chew” on Monday, Nov. 7 at 9 a.m. at the Howard Gittis Student Center, room 217-D.
For the full schedule of events, check out: