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Student Spotlight: Sandra Stover von Dohlen

Sandra Stover von Dohlen enrolled at the University of South Carolina at the age of 19. After a short time, she began to feel unsure of herself and her new environment. Something had to change. Having excelled in high school, something just did not feel right. Realizing that she needed clarity on the problem, she took advantage of the academic counseling services available to her and soon began a non-traditional path to a life-long career of learning.

Sandra knew that she wanted to have the experience of living in New York, so she moved. Between living and working in New York for six years, starting a family, and then re-enrolling at the University of South Carolina, she was finally a senior at the age of 40. Time had caught up with her.  Between reading the Bible, designing stuffed animals, and her passion for photography, the time need for pursuing her degree was in short supply.  Her husband’s job transferred them to the RTP area, and she was unfortunately, unable to enroll in her last semester. Sandra struggled with the thought she had lost time and was unable to complete her degree after all of the effort spent working towards completion.

Thankfully, she discovered that over the course of her college career, she had completed enough psychology and other relevant courses that, by proxy, she earned her North Carolina Early Childhood Credentials. In the last few years, leading up to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sandra taught pre-school at the UNC Child Development Center, previously known as Victory Village Pre-school.

Almost giving up hope on earning her degree, Sandra realized her dream was still possible. She discovered she could get a psychology degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. She initially enrolled as a non-degree seeking part-time student, but was later granted early admission into the degree-seeking program. Sandra didn’t enroll right away as the needs of her family were more immediate. Her desire and determination to pursue a degree continued and she began pursuing her undergraduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2006.

Sandra will graduate with Highest Distinction from UNC-Chapel Hill in May. While completing her degree, she was the recipient of two Renwick Scholar awards. Sandra was recently inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society.  As a non-traditional student, Sandra fully embodies the Phi Beta Kappa motto, “The love of learning is the guide to life.”

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I’m happily married to my best friend Steve, and we are the proud parents of two wonderful young men! Our sons grew up under the shadow of my determination to finish my education, which I started 38 years ago, before they were born.  I enrolled as a part-time student and kept reminding myself of the fact that even if I’m 60 years old by the time I reach my goal, I will be 60 years old with my degree.  I’m graduating at 57 and I’m sure that I will appreciate this milestone more today than I would have years ago. When I began my degree, I had a lot of priorities and responsibilities. Attending college as a part-time student allowed me to accomplish my goal of completing my college degree and not miss out on the other important things in my life.

What drew you to your chosen course of study?

My parents were separated when I was young. Although there were some wonderful times, there were also many challenges that I endured. However, the most remarkable treasure that came out of my childhood challenges was me. I became someone who cares about the person standing next to me.  Something as simple as a smile can lift a person’s spirit, but often people need more, and more requires time.  I chose psychology because I want to become someone who would be able to give my very best where I believe it matters.  I believe we live out our thoughts and I want to help people develop their best thoughts so that they can be their best selves.

Can you talk about some of your obstacles as a non-traditional student?

Keeping up with the changing technology was intimidating for me.  When we first went to online classes, one of my professors asked me if I had my hand raised or if I was just waving at him.  I had no idea that I was doing either!  I had to learn how to laugh at myself.  Also, as years began to pass, I began to feel old and out of place because everyone around me was so young, even most of my professors.  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t already know what they were teaching me.  I began to have very frank conversations with my professors.  Every professor that I spoke to helped me understand that it was their job to teach me something.  They often shared their admiration for what I was doing and were glad to have the experience of teaching a non-traditional student.

Did you have an academic advisor?

Melissa Solomon started off being my advisor.  Sometimes there were years between my being enrolled in a class.  Once, upon one of my returns, she advised me that I needed to move forward with my foreign language requirements.  What she didn’t know was that I hadn’t returned because I was convinced that I would not do well moving forward with Spanish.  She also didn’t know that every time she took a moment to remind me that I was doing well or could continue to excel in my studies, she helped me to have a mind shift.  These frequent pep talks weren’t elicited. I simply believe that Melissa has a big heart for the students that she advises, and she becomes one of their biggest cheerleaders.  Anyone who has seen her smile knows exactly what I’m talking about.  Often life, not necessarily anything challenging, can have a way of getting in there and robbing us of confidence.  It takes an advisor like Melissa to reach the whole person, not just the student.  I’m grateful to her.

What has been the most meaningful experience you have had at — or related to — DLL?

The Friday Center has been a big part of my life for many years now.  For many, it may be just a conference center, but for me, it became the place that reminded me that I was a part of something wonderful.  I loved going there.  The staff was so welcoming.  I’m not sure why I kept going into Jody Cashion’s office, but I always looked forward to getting assistance from her. Those visits were always filled with chatter and laughter. The Friday Center embodied all that I needed to ensure my success.  At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there came a time when I had to just get out of the house. I would drive down to the Friday Center and park in front of the building and remind myself that I was continuing to live and grow in many ways and my education was one of them.

Our students tend to have nontraditional pathways to their degree. Is there anything you would like to share about your journey and/or how you overcame any obstacles?

One reason that I was eager to do this interview was that I wanted to give proper thanks to my community for its support. I know in my heart that if it weren’t for them, I would not be where I am today. My husband, who is now also a non-traditional student at UNC (Go Steve!), and my sons believe in me so much!  I will have many opportunities to continue to thank them, but there is another special group of people, my classmates.

Many wonderful young students welcomed me into their traditional space.  I thought that I would just be stared at by inquisitive minds who would wonder what the heck I was doing there.  Or maybe they would feel sorry for me for “finally” finishing my degree.  I am truly happy that most of these young students rocked. They expressed to me how proud they were of me.  We worked together in teams. Sometimes I led, and sometimes I followed.  No one left me behind and everyone that I asked for help took a genuine interest in helping me.  They encouraged me to stand out to be my unique self and feel like one of them.  I even made friends!

I took a Statistics class during a summer session. I felt so incredibly lost, and I began to cry.  My husband encouraged me to ask my cohort for help, so I reached out to Keller Mink, and I’ll never forget when she said that she would tutor me.  It was such a relief.  Keller took me under her wing, and we got together on Zoom almost every day.  She created problems for me to work through and taught me how to uniquely approach every problem.  Thanks to Keller, I love statistics and I love her even more.

Shelly Si was another wonderful classmate who offered her assistance to me.  She tutored me on Zoom from China despite the difference in time zones.  Think of the awesome sacrifice!  She and I were inseparable that fall semester.  I believe that students and young people everywhere are just awesome, and we don’t always give them the credit they deserve. I have experienced the beauty of coming together to get an education. I’m convinced that if there is one place where the barriers of age can come down, it is where great minds come together to learn and grow.

What are your hopes for post-graduation?

I would love to attend graduate school within the next few years.  In the immediate future, I’m interested in exploring the many opportunities that my liberal arts degree will open, and I need to figure out which one of many areas of psychology I would like to pursue.  I used to be in a hurry, but now I’m not. There really is time.

In closing, is there anything you would like to add?

I came to Carolina to make something of myself, but this experience has taught me that I already am somebody.  Part of this journey was learning to laugh at myself. Learning not to take everything so seriously and extend myself some grace.  Most of all, my husband kept reminding me that it was okay to not know everything. After all, I was there to learn.

I know that there are so many people who think that being a non-traditional student is too difficult.  I understand. Is it a challenge?  At times, of course.  Is there support?  There is support.  Earning my degree didn’t cure me of being afraid of the unknown, but it did prove to me that my completing a degree was not too lofty.  My wish is for others to know this for themselves.

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