Nontraditional learner writes book about successfully continuing education

March 08, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Lee Viar expanded on his doctoral thesis to write a guidebook for adults returning to college for a bachelor's degree or an advanced degree. His advice: To increase their odds of graduation, adult students should set up an informal support network of friends or family.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Lee Viar grew up in Hagerstown, earned an associate degree in business from Hagerstown Junior College in 1989 and took a teller's job at a local bank. He worked his way up to being a loan officer. He thought he was set on a lifelong career path.

He was wrong.

"I got tired of training my own replacements in my jobs. Or (my employers) got bought out, and I didn't have that piece of paper and doors wouldn't open," Viar said. "I realized if I wanted to get anywhere — support my family and myself — I had to go back to school."

So, at age 33, Viar, despite obligations — a family and a full-time job — decided to return to college and get his bachelor's degree. He earned a bachelor's degree in business, then a master's degree in business and finally a doctorate in education.

He has now expanded his doctoral dissertation into a book — "The Nontraditional Learner's Guide to Success: Creating an Informal Support Network." The book is written for a general audience, but Viar said it's also useful for education professionals working with adult students.

"The characteristics of being ... a nontraditional learner is: over the age of 25; supporting yourself (and) you may ... have a family and you're supporting them; and you work at least 25 hours a week," Viar said.

For colleges, adult students are good news and bad news. The good news is there are a lot of them. The bad news, Viar said, is that it's tough to finish the degree.

"The influx of post-secondary learners into universities and colleges — bricks and mortar (schools), online, everything — is higher than the traditional 18-year-olds coming out of high school," he said. "Yet it's the inverse with graduation rates. More (nontraditional learners) are failing out or stepping away."

It's easy to see why, he explained. Adults returning to college have existing obligations — family responsibilities and work responsibilities, for starters. Then, there's the challenge of studying in a 21st-century classroom.

"Typically, you've been out (of college) for a decade or longer" Viar said. "You're going, 'I don't know this stuff. I haven't studied. They've changed things.' Especially if you're older, (they've changed) computer technology."

Taking on all these challenges was difficult for Viar. He asked friends, family and co-workers to help him. His wife, Lori, was his No. 1 supporter.

"I told her, 'Your name should appear after mine on the degree,'" he joked. "She gave me time by myself. She let me bounce ideas off her. She proofread my stuff. And I'd vent to her."

Other members of his support network helped, too. His kids gave Dad time to study. A research participant came over to help with lawn chores. His parents helped in whatever they could.

But Viar noticed not all students have this kind of support. Viar said his eyes were opened during the process of getting his bachelor's degree. He had friends and family backing him up. But some of his fellow students did not.

"I thought everyone was like me — your family supports you and everything else," he said. "But one of the guys I was with got a divorce, because (his wife said) he was taking time from the family. Another guy, his work wouldn't support him.

"I thought, 'Am I naive? Am I an oddity?'"

The impact of support networks stayed on Viar's mind. And when pursuing his doctorate, Viar decided to research and write about it.

"I wanted to try to help the people that were like me — the people who were struggling or trying to advance themselves," he said.

He switched fields for his Ph.D., from business to education. Viar found, while working as a marketer, he loved training other marketers. So now, with his doctorate in education, he teaches online, college-level courses for Strayer University, Colorado Technical University and other post-secondary institutions.

Viar said he hopes his book can be useful. For adult students returning to college, having a support network is huge, he said.

"I view it like this: The informal network is there for when your drive and motivation begin to ebb a little bit. They can give you the pat on the back and the kick in the butt," Viar said. "In general, if you have that informal network in place, chances are that you're going to succeed."

About the book

Author: R. Lee Viar IV of Hagerstown

Title: "The Nontraditional Learner's Guide to Success: Creating an Informal Support Network"

Genre: Education book

Pages: 116

Price: $24.99 hardcover; $18.99 paperback and $3.99 e-book


Available online at: and

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