Life as a nontraditional J-student

Story by Randy Newnham
Photos by Cheyenne Thorpe

My name is Randy, and I am a nontraditional student majoring in public relations. The first time I took a class at the University of Oregon was the summer of 1997, a full 21 years ago.

At the time, I was enrolled in the University of Kentucky and was looking to make a change. After some research, I decided to check out the UO and Eugene. I spent the summer living in the dorms here, taking classes and exploring the town.

Though Eugene was significantly smaller than Lexington, Kentucky, it had a lot going for it: cultural events, friendly people, natural beauty and — perhaps one of the biggest considerations — great coffee. I fell in love with the place and permanently moved to Eugene in the summer of 1999 to pursue a degree in linguistics.

Those three years were full of amazing experiences. I met passionate and interesting people, some of whom I formed lasting friendships with. I joined and led student activist groups, and pushed to make positive changes in the world. I participated in student government, where I learned some useful skills. Most important, I met the woman I would marry. I pretty much did everything prior to leaving the University of Oregon in 2002 except get a degree. Whoops!

The following decade and a half saw some important developments in my life. I married an amazing woman named Angie, whom I met via the UO Gaming Club. Our family grew to include a daughter named Katie and a son named Jack. I joined the workforce doing technical support — a field that, at the time, was growing in the region and had advancement opportunities. But this industry proved quite volatile, and employers began leaving the area.

After losing the last of several jobs in the tech industry in the summer of 2016, I realized I needed to transition into a more stable career. Since my job was outsourced, the Trade Act of 1974 included some protections for displaced workers like me, including enrollment in a training program that would lead to a job in a growing industry.

With my eyes set on being a social media manager, and after a few discussions with the SOJC advising team, I started pursuing a degree in public relations.

So here I am. While going to school as a 42-year-old is certainly a different experience than it was in my 20s, I am glad to say that it has been positive. The faculty of the SOJC have been welcoming and have shown genuine interest and investment in my success. I have also befriended many peers, which I expected to be harder since I’m generally twice their age. I have learned a great deal, and not all of it has been in the curriculum.

My takeaways (so far!):

  1. Take the time to talk to your teachers. Seriously. They’re interesting people who have experience in or adjacent to your field, and might have some incredible stories to tell. Follow them on social media. And really listen to what they say — many don’t stop teaching when the lecture is over.
  2. Connect with your peers. There are so many reasons to do this. First, they’re going through the same things you are and will want to talk about it. Second, it’s always good to have a “class buddy” in case you need to double-check an assignment. Third, they are likely going to be professionals in your field in a few years, so start networking now! And you may just meet your new best friend (this also applies to #1, by the way).
  3. Read the syllabus thoroughly. Know the policies, understand the assignments, and put due dates on your calendar. In the SOJC, most of us are going into careers where adherence to deadlines will make or break you. Get into the habit of taking those seriously now, and the transition to your profession will be much easier.
  4. Raise your hand in class.  Don’t overdo it, but don’t let a day go by without doing it. Ask questions, volunteer for activities, do it all. I have a personal policy that if a question or a request for volunteers goes unanswered for more than three seconds, I raise my hand. This will put you a bit outside your comfort zone sometimes, but it teaches you a lot.
  5. Treat school like a job you love. Show up on time. Communicate effectively with your instructors and peers. Schedule time to work, and be invested in the work you do. Here in the SOJC, much of the work you do generates portfolio pieces that will help get you the job you want, so care enough to do a great job.

So that’s it. Ultimately, what makes a nontraditional student successful is pretty much the same thing that makes any other student successful. While I feel my industry experience has helped me appreciate these lessons more, I think that anyone looking to be a better student could glean a little bit of wisdom from them. I wish you all success.

Randy Newnham, a senior majoring in public relations in the UO School of Journalism and Communication, would rather be pulling espresso shots and playing board games. But the world needs at least one more social media manager, and Randy has risen to the challenge. Together, with the plucky band of underdogs that is his family, Randy fights dirty for social justice. Randy can be found on TwitterInstagram, LinkedIn and in various coffee shops around Eugene.

A senior in the UO School of Journalism and Communication, Cheyenne Thorpe focuses her studies on the impacts of visual storytelling. In 2017, she served as a photojournalist for the SOJC’s Science & Memory on the Oregon Coast and for Northwest Stories in Vietnam. This year, she is working for the SOJC’s Communications Office as a videographer and for the UO’s student-run environmental magazine Envision as the visual director. She is currently a summer photography intern for Multnomah County Communications. See more of her work at and on Instagram @cthorpephotos.