College is Not a Race: Kiana Flores on Being an “Irregular” Student

Illustration by Sophia Bews for Rookie.

At this time of the year, many of us in higher ed. are recovering from the busy spring graduation season, filled with celebration for students, faculty, staff, and parents. But as we know, graduation can be a difficult time for students. Of course, it’s an exciting-yet-scary time for graduates, as they face their fears of the “real world” and grapple with tough decisions. But it also can be tough for those who haven’t yet graduated – the students who may have taken time off, gotten behind in their majors, or who are simply taking it slow on a five- or six-year plan. These students will still be working toward their degrees as they watch many of their peers move on to the next phase in their lives.

These students, sometimes referred to as “irregular” or “nontraditional” (depending on age) are, of course, no less accomplished than their peers, nor should they feel abnormal. Despite the label “irregular,” those of us who work in higher ed. know that it is quite common for students to come to college late or take more than four years to finish, for a whole host of reasons. But these students still confront pressure and feelings of alienation and failure, as Kiana Flores explains in a great recent essay for Rookie, “Graduating in Good Time.” Straight out of high school, Flores followed the standard path, enrolling in a liberal arts college to study Mass Communication. But she never quite hit her stride there, and felt overwhelmed by social and academic stress. After two years, she dropped out. “I felt exposed,” she writes, “my skin thin; I looked around, cared, strained, stressed out a lot.”

After taking six months to collect herself and work what she calls a “Real Adult Job,” Flores decided to return to college—this time at a bigger university—partly due to feelings of guilt that she had failed her family, and partly out of a desire to learn and to finish her education. Ever since, she explains, she has struggled with feeling out of sync with her peers. She writes,

My high school classmates, my first friends and first enemies (both can be true at once; love functions both ways, et cetera), graduated from their respective universities about a month ago, and I’m filled with awe and pride for their hard work and discipline. There were a lot of congratulations and heart emojis of various colors in our correspondences last month. I cried and thought about them and the lives they will foster after graduation. Surely they’d still want to hang out, right? Or maybe not, because now they’d have to find jobs, take board exams, or go on long stretches of vacation. What about me?

While Flores continues to deal with these feelings, she goes on to explain how she’s made peace with her situation, and even met like-minded friends who see “irregular” student-hood as an opportunity to take one’s time and get the most out of the college experience. She writes, “One told me that since the day they decided to stop caring about year-level status, or what their family thought of them for still being in uni at the age of 21, they became freer to explore and do what they like doing.”

With the increasing cost of college and the rigor of many degree programs, “irregular” student paths like the one Flores took are extremely common. For those of us who work in higher ed., it’s important to acknowledge and support these students who, if they feel encouraged and not pressured, often have the perspective to really know themselves, and to get the most out of their education.

Read Kiana Flores’s full essay in Rookie.