Again, But Better: A Look at a Nontraditional Student

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By: Isabel Marrical

Editor: Katie Williams and Oliver Hackett

Natalie Ryan-Gluth is someone who has herself together, though it has been a long road for her.  The 42-year-old mother of four is a senior marketing professional with decades of experience working on everything from artisan pickles, to custom bus shelters, to bourbon. She’s also a non-traditional student at Oakland University, majoring in communication, and still attends nearly every one of her twin teenagers’ soccer games. 

In the nearly three years since the pandemic began, many Americans have returned to school, changed careers, or packed everything up and taken to the highways in search of… something else. Something new. But college, for Ryan-Gluth, isn’t new. She took her first classes as a high school junior over 22 years ago and excelled. She decided to attend Lansing Community College, then transfer to MSU. She seemed to be on track for a conventional college experience, albeit with a head start. 

“But nothing went exactly to plan,” she says with a bittersweet laugh.

Ryan-Gluth is sitting across from me in the living room of her red-brick Colonial, where she is raising her family in the sprawling Oakland County suburb of Waterford. On this wintry January day, it makes for a cozy domestic scene: the black corkscrew curls bundled on top of her head, a deep burgundy sweater swallowing her frame, and two massive dogs curled at her feet. The Great Dane and German shepherd have only just gone quiet, but from upstairs, I can hear the faint strums of the latest TikTok audio and a high-pitched giggle from one of her twins, Aubrey.

“My parents grew up poor,” she says, reflecting on her past. “College was expected, vaguely, but not really supported. I wasn’t going to take the ACT except my best friend signed us up and made me go with her. Five years later, I was cleaning out a box in my dad’s garage and found a bunch of unopened mail, including a scholarship offer to Henry Ford based on my ACT scores. A full ride, too.”

“I did it all backward,” Ryan-Gluth says. “I started my family, then built a career, and now I’m finishing my degree.”

A lot of people wouldn’t bother with the degree at this point. Gluth’s home isn’t small, it’s full of books and art and music, with a pool barely visible in the backyard beneath inches of snow. There are whiteboards full of notes and a daunting schedule, color-coded by child and activity, hangs prominently on one wall. The home is not only well lived in, but well-loved. Taking on such a burden with an already well-paying job and a family seems like a lot.

“Why not?” She counters. “I have struggled my entire life to just be who I am. And I’m someone who loves to learn. I’m a self-taught analyst and a self-taught marketer. I want to be well-educated, true, but more than that, I want to be someone my children can be proud of. Someone who finishes what they start, and has a good time doing it.”

That energy is echoed in the sentiments of Karen Moormann, a colleague who has worked with Gluth through the entirety of the pandemic. “Natalie is who I count on. She always comes through.” Together, Moormann and Gluth have been a major part of resurrecting the business development division of their company.  “It’s been stressful, but it’s also been exhilarating, and Natalie is a big part of that. She just always knows how to put things in perspective.”

I ask Gluth if she has advice for other non-traditional students. She shrugs. “Just don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s a big adjustment, and putting yourself out there requires a certain willingness to be vulnerable. It’s worth it.”

I ask her about traditional students. She shrugs again. “Kids these days – I say that with all respect and a lot of awe – have a way better handle on life than I did even ten years ago. I would just say, it’s an illusion. No one has their stuff together. Not entirely. There’s always something.”

She had made fresh tea for us, and the steam fogs the lenses of her black-framed glasses slightly. “Honestly, once you realize that, it’s liberating. Just do what you want.”

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