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Kristen Cyr
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Success as a nontraditional student builds graduate's self-confidence

May 18, 2016

Sarah KristiansenSarah Kristiansen

Just as she was about to turn 40, Sarah Kristiansen, a professional photographer from Cranston, was feeling out of focus.

"Things were fuzzy," said the 41-year-old mother of two.

Kristiansen said her bookings were fewer and farther between, and she was feeling down about her prospects for the future. She didn't know what she wanted to do, but she knew that she didn't want to be a photographer forever. Her husband suggested going back to school and she balked, thinking she'd missed the boat.

"Two days later, I photographed the Mass Bay Community College commencement. The commencement speaker was so dynamic, talking about feeling like she was in a place of failure and stuck – and how to use that feeling of being really low. Then, I kept watching these women my age and older walk across the stage and get associate degrees."

Kristiansen enrolled at CCRI the next day and despite her misgivings about how it would affect her family, and strengthened by the encouragement of her husband, Kristiansen set foot on the Knight Campus in Warwick for the first time – more than 20 years since she last made an attempt at college.

And although looking back at her time at CCRI fills her with many emotions – happiness, anticipation and the joy of finding the kind of academic camaraderie one can achieve only with fellow self-proclaimed nerds – regret has never been one of those feelings. Not on her nerve-wracking first day, not as she found herself to be among the nontraditional majority of students who start college late in life. Not even when she was grinding away in an exceptionally difficult astronomy class.

"It feels like things are coming into focus," she said. "I'm coming into the thing I'm supposed to be doing. And I know I'd never be able to do that if it weren't for CCRI."

As an aspiring high school English teacher, she will pursue her bachelor's degree in the Feinstein School of Education at Rhode Island College next fall after she graduates with a 3.97 GPA and transfers through the Joint Admissions Agreement program.

"It's so nice to be able to be on this side of my time here," she said, reflecting on the past two years at CCRI. "Especially because I thought it was going to be a disaster. To be able to look back and see my hard work and where it's gotten me – it's built up my self-confidence. I didn't tell anyone I was coming here, because I thought I'd have to tell everyone if I failed out. But now, I'll talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about CCRI."

That's not just a figure of speech, either. Kristiansen is active in her role as Student Representative on the Alumni Association board, where she works to incorporate the student perspective in communications with donors as well as with fellow board members. And when she can, she always tries to encourage and inspire other students who at the start of their educational journey might be as unsure as she once was.

"I think the best advice I could give students who are just starting out is to ask for help," she said. "There's so much available help here for everything. You're not sure how to pay for school? There are people you can talk to. You need help in class? There are peer tutors you can go to. It's hard for some people to say, 'I'm struggling here, and I need some help.' But I see time and time again, students just need a little bit of guidance. Counselors, employees, everyone is happy to help and guide you."

That kind of guidance is what Kristiansen hopes to do with the rest of her career as a teacher. Both in her early school days as well as in her time at CCRI, she said she has always been an active participant in classroom discussion, and she looks forward to inspiring that kind of intellectual curiosity in her future students. Far from just surviving her first sustained try at higher education, instead, Kristiansen is thriving.

"I really love learning," she said, reflecting on her experience presenting her honors project on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire at the recent Northeast Regional Honors Conference. "And I love the process of learning. CCRI has helped me be the person who I'm meant to be."

And though she may be moving on to a campus that comes with its own logistical challenges – parking, locating her classrooms, making new friends, being one of a smaller group of nontraditional college students – she knows that the person she has become is more than up for the challenge. And, above all, that it's never too late to make big changes.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16