If you walk through campus with Ashleigh Kristensen, a senior majoring in social work and minoring in gender and women’s studies, you will likely be stopped by fellow students. Whether they recognize her from her job at Trader Joe’s in Columbia or they want to admire her full sleeve of “Alice in Wonderland” themed tattoos, strangers seem to recognize that Kristensen will warmly engage them in conversation.
Her haircut is wild: half of her hair is dyed pink and the other half is shaved off. Her drawn on, hot pink eyebrows somehow stand out behind her glittery, pink-framed glasses. Fellow students are typically surprised to find out she is 30 years old.
When Kristensen sat with me at a small, corner table in front of the Women’s Center to discuss the challenges and benefits of being an “adult learner” (a student over the age of 25), she looked tired.
“I only got three hours of sleep last night,” she said, her shoulders slumped forward. “I’m happy if I get five.”
After she said this, I noticed the dark circles under her eyes. Work, a demanding home life and full-time college schedule create hectic days for Kristensen.
“I don’t have kids but I do have a husband. Right now he’s disabled so I have to help him a lot when I’m not here,” she said, twiddling her thumbs and clicking her pink-coated fingernails against each other. “It’s not easy but there’s an end date for this and I’m trying to focus on life after that.”
Knowing she will have to obtain a master’s degree in order to achieve her goal of becoming a social worker, Kristensen chose to attend UMBC full-time.
“I don’t want much more time to get away from me where I could be in my field practicing,” she said. Her slow, deliberate speech stood out amongst the echoing chatter of the students around us.
Another difficulty for Kristensen is staying connected on campus. She feels part of the reason is poor advertising. She knew very little about the returning women group at the women’s center and hadn’t heard of adult learner week. “There’s a lot of things I think they would do better to advertise more,” she said, pink eyebrows raised.
Another issue keeping adult learners like Kristensen from connecting on campus is availability. Between her personal life and working to support herself, it is difficult to spend time on campus when events are happening.
“People try to do things during free hour, but not everybody’s here during free hour. Should they have two free hours?” Kristensen mused. “If you’re a returning student it’s very likely you are taking as many classes in the evening as you can.”
Kristensen found scheduling especially difficult when she tried to join the women’s rugby team. The group was welcoming but she couldn’t make the time commitment. “I’m just not here when they meet and I have to work at times when they’re practicing. I wonder if it would be easier for me if I was here more,” she said. For Kristensen, and for many other adult learners, campus involvement continues to be a challenge.