School, jobs and parenting create unique challenges for non-traditional student

Non-traditional accounting student Erin Birdsley juggles multiple roles, including that of mother to her 5-year-old son, Max.

By TRISTAN ABBOT/ Montana State News

Erin Birdsley is not a traditional student. An accounting major, she has taken a different track to college than most students at Montana State University. Despite these different origins, she still maintains a level of connection with the students at the university.

Born in Lander, Wyo., Erin came to Montana when she was 7 when her father got a job in Gateway. She married at the age of 19, which prevented her from attending college at the traditional age. Instead, she ended up working as a bookkeeper for Biglook, which gave her the inspiration to become a certified public accountant (CPA).

The stigma that surrounds non-traditional students however, has put a hamper on her studies. She says that there are different sets of expectations placed on non-traditional students. Not only do other students see her differently, but professors do as well.

She says that some professors expect more from older students, holding them to higher standards than their younger peers. This has led to a detrimental effect to her education she says, putting her in situations that add pressure.

She is not only taking a full course load, but also works two jobs. She is an office assistant at the MSU Recreation Center, as well as a data assistant at the MSU Foundation. She is also a full-time mother, looking after her 5-year-old son Max.

These external commitments add to the challenge of going to school, something that is not lost on Erin. She says that all of her non-school related activities have put a cap on the time she can spend on school work. She usually starts her homework no earlier than 9 at night. The majority of her free time is spent with Max.

Max, no ordinary 5-year-old, is an athlete at all levels.  He has played T-ball, basketball, soccer, golf and anything that he can get his hands on. This is both a blessing and a curse. He is never lacking for something to do, some new hobby. The flip side of this is that Erin has to keep up with him, matching his energy and enthusiasm.

Both of her current jobs are giving her valuable experience towards her future career. With the Recreation Center, she is on the payroll staff, while with the MSU Foundation she works in the accounting department.

The Foundation is a non-profit organization that acts as a middle man for people who wish to donate to the university. They manage the donations and work with the university to distribute them equally.

Despite all of this, Erin says that she has very high expectations of herself. Having real world experience, something that most students lack, has helped prepare her for the rigors of school as well as a plethora of other responsibilities.

“I just have higher expectations of myself,” says Erin.

A typical day for Erin usually starts around 6:30 a.m., when she gently wakes up Max with a, “Get your butt out of bed!” From that moment on, her day picks up, as she juggles class and work, only to run home at the end of the day to pick up Max and help him with his homework.

Although most of her free time is spent doing homework, Erin still finds time for some of life’s little pleasures. She and Max are currently taking a six-week Western Dance class through the university. These classes are the highlights of her week. She gets to spend some stress free time with her son. For just a couple hours a week, she is not a student, a payroll adviser, an accountant; she is simply a mother, dancing with her son.

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