Posted: April 3, 2013 at 11:31 pm

By: Jesse Tabit and Kyleigh Razmic

After 9/11, David Marnell, a senior at West Virginia University, dropped out of school and joined the U.S. Army. He saw three tours of duty in Iraq as a squad leader before returning to WVU in 2012 to finish his degree. He is now 34 and interested in pursuing a career as a war correspondent.

Marnell is among a growing number of students at WVU and the nation who are considered “non-traditional” because they are older than most college students. Between 2011 and 2012, there has been an increase of 572,000 non-traditional students entering universities across the country. According to Brian Walker, program coordinator of the Non-Traditional Student Programs at WVU, there are currently 1,700 non-traditional students on WVU’s campus, many of whom are veterans just like Marnell.

“WVU has definitely seen an increase in the number of non-traditional students in the last five years,” said Walker. Walker said the number of non-traditional students has increased by 200 since 2008.

Experts say this increase can be attributed both to the Great Recession and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the recession, it became more difficult for people with high school diplomas to get jobs, so some decided to go back to school to earn a college degree.  More college graduates also decided to pursue advanced degrees.

“Also, people are living longer and living with a better quality of life and that is another reason we have seen an increase in the number of non-traditional collegiate students nationwide,” said R. Lee Viar, President of the Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education, a Hagerstown, MD-based organization that tracks non-traditional students in the U.S.

However, being a non-traditional student is not easy. According to Viar, 73 percent of non-traditional students nationwide fail to complete the baccalaureate program.

“A lot of these students have to provide and put their family first and make money,” Viar said. “There is definitely a sense of guilt involved.”

Before coming to WVU for a journalism degree, Barbara Yanero led a full-time career as a chef. She still earns money by making and selling pastries.

Before coming to WVU for a journalism degree, Barbara Yanero pursued a career as a chef. She still earns money by making and selling pastries.

Barbara Yanero, a 36-year-old single mother who is currently a senior at WVU, knows about this guilt firsthand. The knowledge that she is responsible for putting food on the table sometimes makes it difficult for her to concentrate on her studies.

“If I’m doing this work and not even getting paid, then what am I getting out of all this,” Yanero says she thinks at times.

After Yanero finished high school in Monongha, West Virginia in 1995, she entered a culinary academy in Pittsburgh and completed an internship at the Sienna Hotel, a five-diamond hotel in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“I wanted to do what any good chef wanted to do which is to study and work abroad, so I chose to go to Italy,” Yanero said.

In 2006, she traveled to Morocco to meet a longtime boyfriend and became pregnant with her son. Soon thereafter, the relationship ended and Yanero returned to the U.S. so that her son could be born a U.S. citizen.  In 2007, she decided to go back to school and enrolled at West Virginia University to study visual journalism.

However, the transition has not been easy. What bothers her most was how inflexible the university’s bureaucracy can be, especially when it comes to scheduling courses that she needs. A lot of the classes she takes either start before 8:30 a.m. or run past 3:30 p.m. Yanero’s son is now in kindergarten and needs to be dropped off at 8:30 a.m. and picked up by 3:30 p.m. when he gets out of school.

“Here I am a single mother struggling with school and working on the side and commuting and my biggest problem was scheduling,” says Yanero.

David Marnell returned to WVU Spring 2012 after serving three tours in Iraq.

David Marnell returned to WVU Spring 2012 after serving three tours in Iraq.

WVU officials say they are making an effort to make the transition process as easy as possible for non-traditional students by providing such things as commuter lounges, a veteran’s lounge, online classes and an office of student family resources, where students can bring their children to a child care program while the students are in class. Yanero says it is easier for her son to enroll in school where they live in Monongah. She commutes about 50 minutes to and from class everyday.

While Yanero pays for her schooling herself, Marnell’s education is paid for by the 9/11 G.I. Bill, which covers  his rent, food and schooling.

As a result, Marnell was able to pick up where he left off in 2002 and is on track to graduate in December of 2013.

“School is a lot easier this time around because I understand I have a mission to fulfill as opposed to when I was in school the first time around,” Marnelll says. At that time, “it seemed like just a requisite step after high school.”