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A Santa Fe College student creates a community for nontraditional students

A mural painted by artist Bonggang outside of the Santa Fe College food court on campus. (Claire Grunewald/WUFT News)
A mural painted by artist Bonggang outside of the Santa Fe College food court on campus. (Claire Grunewald/WUFT News)

Tamika Bright arrived at Santa Fe College in search of a community of students like her.

Bright, 30, began class in fall 2021 and immediately knew she wanted to meet students she could relate to -- people who have taken nontraditional paths to get their college degrees.

Bright reached out to student life employees looking for any organizations available to nontraditional students like herself.

Age, residence, employment level and family responsibilities are just a few characteristics that define a student as nontraditional, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students ages 25 and older are more likely to enroll at two-year institutions over four-year institutions, according to the College Board

Bright said she found two organizations that are geared toward nontraditional students but are somewhat exclusive, she said.

The college has a displaced homemakers program for people transitioning into employment after working primarily in the home. And Santa Fe's existing nontraditional student program is for students in a program that leads to an occupation in which women or men comprise 25% or less of total employment.

Bright said not all students who identify as nontraditional would fit those categories.

So Bright created her own organization that she said is open to all nontraditional students. The Nontraditional Student Organization provides financial aid opportunities and general support to students who identify as nontraditional.

“That’s what the club is for, to hear other people's stories and see what they need, so that we can bring it up to administration,” Bright said.

A 2015 study showed that 40% of the current undergraduate population at American colleges and universities are parents, caregivers, full-time employees, and retirees. These students can experience feelings of social isolation on their campuses, according to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Bright said she knows some students can't make it to a 2 p.m. class or get financial aid in the way that an 18-year-old who's fresh out of high school can, she said.

“I created this student organization because I want to help people like me who don't have an easy path in life,” Bright said.

Like most nontraditional students, Bright’s path to college has not been linear.

Bright originally attended SFC as a dual-enrollment student in 2008 to get an associate degree and later graduated from the University of Central Florida to become a teacher.

While teaching at Interlochen Arts Academy during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bright said she realized she was struggling with her mental health and needed a career change.

For a time, Bright said she didn’t really have her own place and was living with other people.

Today, Bright said she has found support from her organization while preparing to graduate with an associate degree in graphic design.

“I want to make sure that people have support because it sucks when you feel like you don't have friends or like you don't have people you can go to,” Bright said.

Stephanie Norman, the Nontraditional Student Organization advisor, was introduced to Bright when she began her search for a group.

Norman is the program coordinator for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Childcare Grant, which has given her experience working with nontraditional students. When Norman attended SFC, she was a nontraditional student, so she and Bright immediately connected, she said.

“Santa Fe is geared for nontraditional students, but we don’t have representation like a social group for support, we only have programs,” Norman said.

The formation of Bright’s group changed that. Nontraditional students have found a community and new opportunities within the group that have impacted their college experiences.

Ovismar Gonzalez, 26, left her home in Venezuela and moved to the States to seek political asylum when she was 16. She later enrolled at SFC in 2014 but had to drop out after two semesters.

In 2018, when Gonzalez was able to find more stability, she enrolled at the college again. By 2021, she was able to complete her associate degree while supporting herself financially.

“I was working two full-time jobs, and at some point, was going to school full time as well,” Gonzalez said. “it has always been this way, this nontraditional way of going through school.”

Gonzalez said she felt she was missing out on the typical college experience and decided to become involved in on-campus organizations. Through her involvement with a SFC leadership program, she met Bright who introduced her to the Nontraditional Students Organization.

“We all come from different backgrounds. We all have different stories and different things that make each [of us] unique,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez became vice president of the organization, a position she still holds. The organization gave her a group of people to relate to and many financial opportunities, she said.

“I was able to find financial help through the college … that has been a huge help for me. I stopped working two full-time jobs,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said she is scheduled to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in organizational management.

Michelle Beno, 22, transferred to SFC in 2020 and graduated in fall 2022 with a degree in clinical lab science. Beno was a caregiver and had a 1 1/2-hour commute to the college.

“I was always working, commuting, and I was a transfer student,” Beno said.

Beno discovered the organization and quickly became its senator to become more involved in it and the college.

“I wanted a community, and it was really hard with COVID-19, with other people like me who didn't have a traditional pathway,” Beno said.

As the organization’s senator, Beno spread the word to SFC’s student government which she said was excited to discover there was a place of support for nontraditional students.

“Most students at Santa Fe are nontraditional and [student government] didn't even know we had a club, and that we offer these opportunities,” Beno said. “To get together, really connect and find resources.”

Claire is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.