"The 'Non-Traditional' Life"

Sara Keene, Heartland Community College
2017 Paul Simon Student Essay Contest Honorable Mention

Upon graduating high school, which seems like eons ago, I made the naïve decision to not pursue a college education. I thought I had my future all figured out. I planned to work hard, get promoted, and live an amazing life. I soon realized life does not work that way. Getting married, paying rent, buying groceries, and making car payments quickly drained the bank account.

Heartland Community College student Sara Keene (left) accepts her $250 Paul Simon Student Essay Contest scholarshipfrom ICCTA secretary Kathy Spears.

Southeastern Illinois College student Callie Smith (right) accepts her $500 Paul Simon Student Essay Contest scholarship from ICCTA secretary Kathy Spears.
As newlyweds, we added a baby to the mix, and a second soon followed. Before I knew it, my dream of becoming a successful career woman was plummeting into a depressing reality of bankruptcy, divorce, and multiple dead-end jobs.

As a single mom of two young daughters, I tried to stay afloat by working multiple part-time jobs and living with my parents, but it became clear that a college degree was the key to a successful future. When I remarried, we moved to Bloomington in 2011 so that my husband could finish his teaching certification. The day he was offered a job as a public school teacher, I realized that my time had finally arrived. Last spring, I enrolled at Heartland Community College with a handful of credit hours and absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do with my life.

I began my new journey full throttle -- I was a full-time student, mother of two tween girls, and working part-time job as a lunchroom monitor at the girls' elementary school. My first semester at Heartland was a balancing act between learning the best ways to be a successful student, while also being a supportive mother, spouse, and valued employee. The most frequent question I faced as a Heartland student should have been the easiest to answer -- "What is your major?" With the help of Career Services, I discovered that my passions included solving problems and working with nature. After much deliberation, I realized I wanted to find solutions to problems with nature, so I decided to pursue a bachelor's degree in renewable energy.

Last semester, while juggling 10 credit hours, my obligations as a wife and mother, and part-time employment, I applied for admission to Illinois State University. With the help of Heartland's ISU transfer representative, I was accepted into both ISU and the renewable energy program on the same day.

Balancing college and a fully developed adult life is difficult. Navigating the never-ending role conflict faced by non-traditional students who work and raise children has led to countless late nights studying and completing various academic projects. On a typical weekend, I simultaneously complete my math homework while helping both of my daughters with their math assignments. What makes this such a positive and rewarding experience is that I am both making progress towards my degree completion and demonstrating to my children the value and importance of a college education.

Heartland Community College has changed my life because it has helped me begin my life. I, Sara Keene, a 35-year-old wife and mother, am about to graduate from Heartland Community College!