When you picture a college student, you probably imagine a fresh-faced 18-year-old whose parents moved them into their dorm room.
But nearly a third of Illinois college students are 25 or older. They may be raising children and holding down full-time jobs while taking classes. More than half drop out, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.
Stephanie Quintana is among the other half making it. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, she dashes out of her office in the Loop and speedwalks to her Nissan a couple of blocks away. Her college class on the Far Northwest side starts at 4:15 p.m.
“I still have to use GPS every time I do this,” says Quintana, whose dark brown hair is neatly pulled back into a ponytail, her bangs framing a determined look. “Oh, it says we’re getting there late.”
Quintana works for the City of Chicago’s health department. The earliest she can start work is 7:30 a.m., so she can’t leave until 3:30 p.m. And traffic on Interstate 90-94 is moving slowly on this day.
“If my teacher was not flexible or understanding, I would have definitely never been able to pass this class,” she says.
The 30-year-old Chicago native transferred last summer to Northeastern Illinois University, a school that has long focused on serving non-traditional students like Quintana. That’s after she tried for several years to finish a bachelor’s at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“As soon as I had my daughter it was like, ‘I need to go to college,’ ” she said.
Quintana wanted to make more money to provide for her family. She even served in the Navy to help pay her tuition.
“It’s definitely been a lot of roller coasters and struggle,” she said. “There were plenty of times where I just was like, ‘Maybe I’ll just forget about school and do it later.’ ”
One of the classes she needed for her communications degree at UIC was only offered during the day, when she works. She kept missing class. Her professor said she shouldn’t have registered for it.
“But it’s a required class,” Quintana said. “So I had no other choice.”
Quintana refused to give up. She found Northeastern through a quick Google search. An adviser told her the school would accept all her credits — and offer her a flexible class schedule.
“All I would need were two or three semesters to graduate,” said Quintana. “So immediately, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do it.’ ”
In recent years a dramatic drop in enrollment and budget cuts have threatened support services at Northeastern. Still, Quintana’s found the help she needs.
Her faculty adviser responds to her questions at all hours. Many classes at Northeastern are offered in the afternoon or evening after work. And there’s a lot of freedom in course selection, which has allowed Quintana to find classes that fit her busy schedule.
Like the costume design class she hustles to on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students are seated around a mannequin draped in cream-colored fabric, sketching. Quintana’s late arrival does not seem to phase her professor. She takes a seat, pulls out a sheet of paper, and quickly jots down some impressions.
“I’m trying,” Quintana says.
“I was really impressed,” says her professor, Lizz Otto-Cramer. “You had like 30 seconds or whatever to draw that.”
The understanding this professor shows Quintana is common at Northeastern, students say. Faculty members know their students have many obligations competing for their time. A few weeks ago, Quintana was late to turn in an assignment and reached out to her teacher.
“Her response was, ‘I have a child. I know how life can be. Get it into me by Tuesday,’ ” she says. “That would have never been allowed at UIC. Ever. That’s so special and hard to find.”
At 5:30 p.m., costume design wraps up. Quintana heads back to her car. She’s yawning.
“I’m starting to get sleepy now,” she says. “On the way here that adrenaline is just pumping.”
And her day isn’t over. Quintana has another class online from 7:15 to 9:40 pm.
She drives to her apartment in Roscoe Village on Chicago’s North Side. She checks her mail and walks her golden retriever. She calls her ex-husband to make sure he drops off her daughter and son, Jaylani and Nova, before her class starts. The two have a lot to say about their mom being in school.
“It’s annoying,” Nova says. “Because some of her classes are three hours long.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jaylani adds. “When it goes to 9:30, it’s so overwhelming, because, how can she deal with that? Three-hour classes?”
Jaylani comes back a couple minutes later and adds, “I like my mom doing classes, because I know that’s what she likes and dreams for because she’s always wanted to do classes and pursue … whatever she does.”
The middle schooler has homework to do so she heads to her room. Quintana settles into a corner of her sectional and opens up her laptop. Her class on American film history is starting.
Quintana points to other students on the screen: a retired veteran, a mom raising a child with autism. Unlike most of her classmates at UIC, she says, these students don’t have time for extracurricular activities. When they’re not in class, they are working or taking care of elders or children. Being around students like these has given her a sense of belonging.
“There’s times where I felt like ‘Yeah, I’m just not going to get through this. This is not manageable. I can’t do it,’ ” she says. “But when I came to Northeastern, I haven’t failed a class, I haven’t had to withdraw, I haven’t even had to think about that.”
As class goes on, Quintana’s son Nova gets restless and rides his scooter around the dining room. Their golden retriever, Stella, steals Jaylani’s shoe. Even though she’s in class, Quintana still has to parent.
“It’s time for bed, seriously,” she says to Nova before turning back to the screen. “Now, I’m tired.”
As exhausted as she is, Quintana is grateful for Northeastern, and for this class. It brings her one step closer to graduating in May — and earning more money to support her family. And despite the headache of juggling classes and work and her kids, she plans to start a master’s program this summer at DePaul.
“I have to continue to market myself and remain competitive,” she says.