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It was a few minutes before class started, and I was chit-chatting with the young lady next to me. We were casually friendly: we would say “hi” if we saw each other in the hall, and that was about it.

As an older student, I wasn’t really looking for deep, lifelong friendships with my younger classmates. As  a realist, I certainly didn’t expect it; early in my first semester back in college, I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t have a whole lot in common with “the kids.”  I’d also immediately picked up on the disdain the kids had for older folks in the classroom. I was perfectly fine with just having a few people to chat with here and there.

“Do we have class on Monday?” she asked me.

“Nope,” I said. “Sunday is Veteran’s Day, so we have Monday off.”

“Cool,” she said.

“Veteran’s Day is my birthday,” I blurted out, immediately regretting it.

“Oh, really?” she said. “How old are you turning?”

Among college students, a birthday is a big deal because it might just be that all-important 21st.

I hesitated. This was always awkward. I am blessed and cursed with a very youthful appearance that is incongruous with my actual age. Usually, mind-blowingly incongruous. At the time, I was about to turn 39.

“How old do you think I am?” I challenged her with a grin. I decided to play it with humor.

“20?” she asked.

I shook my head. “39,” I confessed.

She laughed.

“Really,” I said.

“Get out!”

Her face registered both shock and dismay. I could almost feel her growing colder, backing away mentally.

Indeed, her attitude towards me immediately changed. In the coming weeks, she became less and less friendly. By the end of the semester, she only talked to me when it was necessary regarding classwork, such as critiquing each other’s essays. The only other variable that had changed was that she knew my age. It was a little disappointing that she had no interest in even casually chatting with me any more. She occasionally nodded at me in the hallway… when she couldn’t avert her eyes quickly enough.

As I said earlier, I was neither looking for- nor expecting to make- close friends in college as a non-traditional student. If I somehow happened to make a real friend or two along the way, that would be fine with me, too. Sadly, the girl in this story isn’t the only student to freak out a little and back away from me. To be fair, there have been a few who were definitely surprised, yet not repelled.

That disdain many students have towards older students is real and pervasive. I don’t mean to scare any would-be non-traditional students, but I’d be irresponsible to avoid discussing it.

A big part of it, I think, is a generational thing. I’m old enough to be my classmates’ mom, and I imagine that might be a little bit uncomfortable. You’re not really their peer, and it’s difficult for them to reconcile that. As a result, they feel that they need to edit their words and behavior around you. Think about how you acted around your parents’ friends (and friends’ parents) when you were your classmates’ age. You probably tried to stay on your best behavior, lest they tell your parents! I think the same thing is going on there with traditional and non-traditional students.

There is an invisible but very obvious boundary between traditional and non-traditional students. If you learn quickly enough that you are on what they perceive as their territory,  you’ll be fine. An older person who is a little too friendly is often viewed by young people as slightly creepy, even when your intentions are innocent. Also, remember that you may be in college, but you’re not 20 years old again. You absolutely do NOT want to be the middle-aged fellow saying, “Hey guys, let’s party!” That’s embarrassing and creepy. Don’t be That Guy/Gal.

Another major factor is the wisdom that comes with age and experience. Non-traditional students tend to come across as know-it-alls to younger students. We have a “been there, done that” attitude that is perfectly normal for our age, but is completely distasteful and preachy to young people. They’re still learning all this Life stuff that we’ve already mastered. We’re also usually closer to our professors in age, which I think aligns us with “the enemy” in the kids’ minds.

This may all sound discouraging and sad, but there is some good news. College doesn’t have to be a lonely time. If you take classes in the evenings, the traditional/non-traditional ratio will likely be in your favor. Non-traditional students do tend to flock together, and you can make friends during your time on campus. Also, almost every college has a club for non-traditional students, which will give you the chance to mingle with people with whom you have more in common.

In a few weeks, it’ll be time to start thinking about buying textbooks for the fall semester. In the past three years,  I have purchased all my textbooks (with one or two exceptions) on Amazon.com… all at incredible savings over the college bookstore!

I just learned about a new offer from Amazon.com that will make the textbook savings even sweeter.

Amazon Student gives college students (that includes YOU,  my non-traditional friends!) one year of Amazon Prime service (a $79 value):  special discounts and promotions, free two-day shipping, and more. All you need to do is provide Amazon with your college “.edu” email address and the name of your college.

As soon as my fall textbook list is available from the bookstore,  I will go to Amazon and see how much money I’ll save this semester!

AMAZON STUDENT

Well, it’s W2 season out here in Taxpayerland.

Time to start thinking about your 2009 income tax return.

Me? I had a very productive weekend. I took care of my state and federal taxes, and also FAFSA.

This year, there’s a new tax break for full-time college students: The American Opportunity Credit  (AOC). It’s part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and offers a tax credit on higher-education costs.  Eligible costs include tuition, fees, textbooks, and supplies.

Books and supplies need to be specifically required for classes. You can’t just say, “Well, I’ve been wanting a new laptop, so now’s a good time to get it.” If, however, your college requires students to buy a laptop, that’s an eligible expense.

The AOC allows you to take a tax credit on college costs not covered by grants and scholarships. Your college may send you a 1098-T form, which states how much you paid in tuition and fees and how much you received in scholarships and grants.  If you’ve received a 1098-T form, compare the amounts in Boxes 2 and 5.  If the amount in Box 2 is bigger than Box 5, then you should be eligible to take a tax credit for the difference.

The tax credit is 100% of the first $2000 and 25% of the second $2000. The maximum credit is $2500, and (depending on your financial situation) you may get a refund of up to 40% of the credit ($1000). I was able to get the $1000 refunded, which certainly helps a semi-starving student.

Example 1:

Tuition and fees: $10,000

Scholarships and grants: $6,000

In this case, $4,000 was not covered by scholarships and grants.

100% of the first $2,000: $2,000

25% of the second $2,000:  $ 500

Total tax credit:  $2,500

Potential refund (40%): $ 1,000

Example 2:

Tuition and fees: $5,000

Scholarships and grants: $3,500

In this case, $1,500 was not covered by scholarships and grants.

100% of the first $2,000: $1,500

25% of the second $2,000:  N/A

Total tax credit:  $1,500

Potential refund (40%): $ 600

By the way, don’t worry if you used student loans to pay education expenses that grants and scholarships didn’t cover. This tax credit only takes grants and scholarships into consideration.

Sure, not all non-traditional students attend college full-time, but a great many are putting their own kids through college at the same time. This tax credit can be used for each qualifying dependent student. A full-time student with one or more dependent children in college can save a sizable chunk on their taxes.

Overall, the American Opportunity Credit is a great way to reduce your income tax bill… and maybe get a little cash back!

Important Links:

irs.gov: The American Opportunity Credit

irs.gov: American Opportunity Credit Q & A

wikipedia: American Opportunity Credit

I have a work-study job in my school library, and love it. I love being around books, and I also love helping people find the information they need. Much of the time, I need to refer students to the professional librarians, but I can handle a lot of requests. Most questions are computer/software-related, such as formatting text in Microsoft Word 2007. Few of the problems I solve have any real significance beyond that person.

Yesterday, however, there was a biggie.

The financial aid office sent a woman down to use a library computer to fill out her FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) online.  I told her to let me know if she needs any help. About a half-hour later, she approached the circulation desk, and asked me for some help. I went over to see what the problem was. It seems the FAFSA website was asking her for a credit card number. The cost for filing her application was $79.99.

Uh-oh.

Somehow, she had gone to fafsa.com, which is NOT the legitimate federal student aid site– fafsa.ed.gov! I can only guess that she did a google search for “fafsa,” and selected the dot-com site. There she was, with a pile of income tax papers and W-2 forms… and she had just spent a half hour giving her sensitive information to some shady for-profit website!

I urged her to quickly get out of that phony financial aid website, and put her on the right track. She had some paper work from the financial aid office with the correct FAFSA web address on it, but for whatever reason she had gone to a different site. I think the financial aid office should have been a lot more clear. I felt really bad for her. I hope her information is safe.

“I thought it was free to apply,” she told me, red-faced. “And then when they said it was$79, I knew something was wrong. I’m too old for this stuff, I’m 36…” I tried to assure her that it was okay, and I was glad I set her straight before she got ripped off by a phony site.

Traditional students often have a better understanding of financial aid procedures, but only because they may have been informed by their high school guidance counselors. Non-traditional students don’t always have that kind of support when they return to college.

If you’re applying for federal student aid, protect your personal information and avoid getting ripped off by scam sites pretending to be the US government!

In short, remember these three things:

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

If a website charges a fee to file your FAFSA or asks for a credit card number, it is definitely a scam.

fafsa.ed.gov is the only legitimate site for applying for federal student aid.

A common side-effect of writing several different “niche” blogs is that sometimes topics are bound to overlap.

This is one of those times, and this is one of those topic: Time management.

Kindly travel with me across the outer reaches of the ‘sphere…

If time is money, then I’m not as frugal as I thought!

Thank you very much.

Returning to college as an adult can certainly be overwhelming!

Being back in a classroom will force you to use some mental “muscles” that you might not have used in a long time. You’ll also need to develop some other skills that might not have even existed when you were in school!

Over the next several days, this will be a series of Top Success Skills for Non-Traditional students.

MathReading | Writing | Critical Thinking | Computers |  Research

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CRITICAL THINKING

Recently, my local newspaper printed an article about the pollution dangers of burning wood pellets for heat. The first sentence of the article reads:

A study conducted for Maine’s oil dealers concludes air quality could worsen if thousands of homeowners switch from oil heat to wood pellet stoves.

Now before you make any rash decisions about how you’ll heat your home this coming winter, read the above sentence again.

Then ask yourself: Why would the Maine oil dealers commission a study on this topic? Well, the article goes on to say:

It takes aim at a draft recommendation of the Governor’s Wood-to-Energy Task Force, which has set a goal of having 10 percent of homes heat with pellets.

Well, if 10 percent of the homes in Maine switch to wood heat, the oil companies stand to lose over 50,000 customers! (In 2000, there were 518,200 households in Maine. Source:  US Census Bureau)  Could that loss of income be the underlying motivation? Do you think there’s even the slightest chance that the findings of the study might be biased in favor of oil heat?

Further on in the article, a gentleman accuses the oil dealers of “using selective information to mislead people”. That may very well be true, but…

“They’re trying to protect their turf, protect their pocketbook, so people will continue to burn oil,” said Otten, who has launched a business, Maine Energy Systems, that’s promoting and selling high-efficiency, European pellet boilers.

Wait a minute. He’s in the business of selling wood stoves. If ten percent of Mainers switch from oil to wood, he’ll have  50,000+ potential customers! When he stands to make a lot of money himself, isn’t it a little hypocritical for him to say the oil dealers are trying to “protect their pocketbook”?

It’s okay to sigh at this point. I don’t blame you one bit.

Modern life– and our media– can be confusing.

Every minute of every day, we are bombarded by sometimes baffling information.

  • Experts and pundits dispute each others’ claims.
  • Marketing and advertising demand our attention (and our wallets).
  • Statistics often make no sense.
  • The results of studies and surveys on the same subject contradict each other!

Seemingly at every turn, you encounter groups and individuals pushing their agendas, stirring up controversy, promoting their causes!

This is why critical thinking has never been more crucial than it is today.

Critical thinking is the ability to step back and analyze information, and then make a good judgment as to whether the information is reasonable and logical.

Sure, it’s much easier to just blindly accept what you hear and read. “A major study shows that 98% of all heart attack patients had brushed their teeth within the previous 48 hours. Therefore, this proves that toothpaste causes heart attacks.” I just made that up, but if that “fact” appeared on the evening news, a lot of people would panic! Think about it, though: most healthy people have also brushed their teeth in the past 48 hours! A lot of the information you come across won’t be as obviously ridiculous.

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But how can you know for sure a “fact” or a “statistic” or a “truth” is correct or not?

Critical thinking requires you to have a healthy skepticism towards much of what you see and hear in the media. In college, you’ll be expected to do a lot of research. Your instructors will expect you to use credible sources (books, journals, websites and other resources that are known to be reliable), rather than questionable sources. When researching information for a term paper, you will need to be able to evaluate whether or not a website or article is a credible source: is this information a proven fact, based on solid evidence… or just someone’s personal opinion?

Opinions are fine; we all have them. It’s when personal opinions are presented as fact that there’s a problem.

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Critical Thinking as an Academic Skill

Learning about critical thinking is an incredibly valuable part of your education. I know for sure these ideas were never taught in my education up through high school. My school’s beginning philosophy course, “PHI 101- Critical Thinking” was an absolute revelation to me when I took it last fall. Your college may offer such a course, most likely an offering of the Philosophy (or Humanities) Department. It might be called “Critical Thinking” or “Logic”. Check with your advisor, or your school’s Philosophy department.

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College is no place for mental laziness.

In your college school work, you’ll be forced to really THINK about things. You could say that high school work gives an overview of a topic, focusing on details and facts and figures. College work takes those details, facts, and figures… and analyzes them, looking for connections and patterns. In college, you’ll be looking for deeper meaning, the big picture that connects the facts.

Learning about logic and the structure of arguments will help you immensely in your other classes, especially with essays and other papers. Being able to put together a solid argument (a statement supported by evidence) will help you organize your thoughts and create a well-written paper.

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Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

It’s often said that adults of a certain age are “set in their ways”. This may or may not be true, but in college, you’ll come across many new ideas and perspectives.  Many of those ideas will challenge your beliefs, and this could be very uncomfortable at times. But this is why you are in college- to learn, to broaden your understanding of the world.

I’m not saying you necessarily have to change your mind or abandon your values. Many of your beliefs and opinions are hard-won, the result of life experience. But how many of your most cherished beliefs were handed down to you from your family, or picked up somewhere along the way without really questioning them? Refusing to question your own beliefs can be scary, and some people see it as a sign of weakness or lack of faith. However, it can be very satisfying to investigate other points of view with an open mind… and eventually decide that your own ideas still stand up to close scrutiny.

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Keep an open mind… but not so open that your brain falls out!

It seems like a total contradiction, but learning requires both an open mind… and skepticism.

The key is to neither blindly accept nor flatly dismiss new information. Check it out. Investigate it. Do some research. And THEN made a judgment.

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Helpful Critical Thinking Resources:

Critical Thinking Skills

Critical Thinking Articles for Students

Identifying the Argument of an Essay (great tutorial!)

Critical Thinking Basics

A Practical Guide to Critical Thinking

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ACADEMIC SUCCESS SKILLS FOR NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS SERIES

1. Math

2. Reading

3. Writing

4. Critical Thinking

5. Computers

6. Research

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If you enjoyed this post and/or found it useful, please make a contribution to my virtual tip jar!

Returning to college as an adult can certainly be overwhelming!

Being back in a classroom will force you to use some mental “muscles” that you might not have used in a long time. You’ll also need to develop some other skills that might not have even existed when you were in school!

Over the next several days, this will be a series of Top Success Skills for Non-Traditional students.

MathReading | Writing | Critical Thinking | Computers |  Research

——————————————————

WRITING SKILLS

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“I’m not looking for a book report on Hamlet. I’m looking for analysis!”

That was my Intro to Literature instructor from last semester, assigning a 5-page essay on Shakespeare’s famous play.

Back in your high school English class, you might have gotten away with writing a paper that simply summarized the plot:

Prince Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost and learns the truth about how his father died. Hamlet becomes obsessed with plotting revenge against the murderer– the King’s own brother, who by the way has since married Hamlet’s widowed mother and has become the new King of Denmark. Hamlet goes a little crazy, and chaos ensues.

That probably won’t cut it in college.

College writing is a whole new level. When my literature instructor said she wanted “analysis” and not a “book report”, she meant business. Your college professors will expect more from you than just a summary of the textbook chapters.

You’ll need to go a lot deeper than just re-telling the story in your own words. Your instructor already knows the story; you need to write a paper that convinces him/her that you understand what the story means.

Literature analysis is beyond the scope of this post (another post for another day), but the point is that

college writing will most likely be more complex than anything you’ve ever written in your school career.

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Building the foundations

As mentioned for Math and Reading, you will most likely have to take a placement test in Writing, as well. You may need to take a lower-level writing course to bring your skills up to the college level. Don’t feel insulted or discouraged. This will help you in the long run, preparing you for success at higher levels.

Required for graduation… and rightfully so!

Most degree programs require at least one college-level writing course. This isn’t just a random, meaningless requirement. It’s practical and useful. Good writing skills will help you succeed in your future course work, too. You’ll need to write papers and essays in other classes, and your writing class will give you skills to build on throughout your college career.

An important skill beyond college

The importance of effective writing isn’t only useful in school. Good writing skills are highly sought-after in the workplace, as well. In fact, many employers bemoan the fact that workers’ writing skills are sorely lacking.

Being able to write well can give you a special advantage in the job market. When there’s a pile of poorly-written resumes on the hiring manager’s desk, your well-written resume will stand out from the crowd. When you outshine the majority of applicants, your chance of winning an interview increases dramatically!

Practice, practice, practice!

Writing is a skill like anything else, and requires practice. You learn to write by… simply writing a lot!  People who seem to be “born writers” may have a natural aptitude, but their skill comes from having actually practiced a lot more than most people!

Spelling and grammar count!

Some teachers have argued that spelling and grammar are not as important as the ideas being expressed. Your college professors and potential employers will disagree. They probably won’t be too concerned about your self-esteem to correct you and take off points for spelling. Whenever I see glaring errors in a written document, I begin to seriously question the content as well. Your use of the language should support your ideas, not undermine them.

Your word processing software has a Spell-Check function… use it! In MS Word, for example, when you misspell a word, a squiggly red line will appear beneath it. You can correct the word yourself, or the software can correct it for you. (Related post: Writing tips: Word Usage)

Finally, papers will need to be written in a much more formal language than what you use in, for example, memos and emails. Abbreviations and Instant Messaging slang are never appropriate in college work.

Need help?

If you’re in a writing class, your instructor is right there to help you with the writing process.

If you’re having trouble writing a paper for another class, however, fear not! Many colleges have resources for helping students with writing. Special departments, often called a Writing Center or Writing Lab, are available on many campuses. Staffed by faculty and other writing professionals, a Writing Center is dedicated to helping students with their academic writing. If you’re having trouble organizing your ideas or structuring an outline for your paper, they can help.

These resources are there for you. USE THEM!

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Useful links

The Owl– Purdue University Online Writing Lab

Academic Writing Skills- adulteducation.suite101.com

Academic Writing Skills- yourdictionary.com

Writing Skills

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THE SERIES

1.  Math Skills

2.  Reading Skills

3.  Writing Skills

4. Critical Thinking

5.  Computer Skills

6.  Research skills

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If you enjoyed this post and/or found it useful, please make a contribution to my virtual tip jar!

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