College students are more diverse than ever these days. One common denominator is the fact that bulk of these students, 89% according to one study (http://upcea.edu/resources/faqs.html), are defined as being non-traditional students. According to the study, non-traditional students share certain traits, including:

  • Delaying post-secondary education
  • Attending part-time college
  • Being financially independent from parents
  • Having dependents
  • Employed full-time while enrolled
  • Being a single parent
  • Having a GED or high school equivalent certificate

While not all of these traits may apply to each individual non-traditional student, the underlying them is that these college students have already been exposed to the “real world.” These students are typically older than their traditional student counterparts.  Bearing this in mind, it would seem that these students would have a competitive edge over their traditional college student peers. However, that is not always the case. While these students possess transferable skill sets, employers still demand the staple “three to five years of hands on working experience” within their respective field of study.

The most common solution to gaining hands on experience is by doing internships. While it’s a pretty even mix of paid vs. unpaid internships, the paid are typically reserved for larger universities with prestigious reputations. The unpaid internships seem to be more prevalent because they seem to be easier to find.

One main question that has been asked is, “are unpaid internships legal?” There’s a great post (http://www.distance-education.org/Articles/Is-Your-Unpaid-Internship-Legal–How-to-Tell-386.html) that questions this.  Bottom line is yes, however can it really be a level playing ground for non-traditional students? While the traditional students can afford to not get paid and have their parents foot the bills for their education, the non-traditional students cannot afford to simply give up working a full time job in order to gain experience within their field. It’s one thing to expect college students to provide free labor, but when the demands of the internship interfere with their full time employment it makes it a lot harder for them and typically results in financial hardships or dropping out of college all together.

Non-profit organizations typically have openings or gaps to fill and are eager to have students onboard. If an unpaid internship is nowhere to be found, reach out to a non-profit organization that aligns with something that you believe in. As an example, if you are passionate about getting people back to work, consider doing some research into economic/workforce development agencies within your region. Here in the Lansing, Michigan area, the Pink Slip Mid-Michigan (www.pinkslipmidmichigan.org) happens to be such an organization. This great event occurs every quarter and provides workshops to job seekers and also gives them an opportunity to network with local businesses.  An accounting student may consider providing free tax preparation through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs during the tax season (http://www.irs.gov/individuals/article/0,,id=107626,00.html). Perhaps an English major or law student may offer to write a grant for their local charity. There are several ways of getting involved, but the first step is reaching out to offer your talents and determining how you can gain valuable hands on experience by volunteering.

Networking is a great way of learning more about opportunities and build professional relationships as well. Professional societies such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and Case Management Society of America (CMSA) offer networking events, mentoring opportunities and seminars to help their members excel in their respective fields. Often times, students are allowed to join these organizations at a discounted rate and sometimes even free. When a student joins, there are several opportunities to network, job shadow or be paired up with a mentor in their field.

Workshops, conferences, conventions and seminars can also offer new perspectives for non-traditional college students. The Michigan HR Day (http://www.michiganhr.org/) proved to be a great learning opportunity with several workshops and allowed professional Human Resources personnel the opportunity to network with one another. Some of the workshops even provided these professionals with Continuing Education Credits (CEU’s). It was an amazing opportunity for an HR student to network and build professional relationships as well.

Reverse Mentoring programs  and Virtual Internships are somewhat new concepts that are radically changing the way that college students can gain experience. Reverse mentoring basically takes college students and allows them to teach mature employees the value of technology (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203764804577060051461094004.html). Virtual internships are becoming more and more desired and seem to be the way to go for non-traditional students in particular. Jumpstart HR (http://jumpstart-hr.com/vip) offers such an internship opportunity.

While gaining three to five years of hands on experience within your field may seem a bit daunting, it can be accomplished. The fact of the matter is that you need to be creative, resourceful and motivated to find the opportunities that will help you gain experience. Chances are, if you are a non-traditional student, you already possess these characteristics and will persevere.

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