The Other Student: A Nontraditional Experience at Spelman College

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I never thought my journey would lead me to Spelman College, especially as a nontraditional student. I have been a beauty entrepreneur since I graduated from high school in 1992. I held positions at Clinique, Dr. Miracles Hair Care and Ulta 3 Cosmetics. In 1996, I opened Nekesa’s Natural Radiance Beauty Co., a natural hair salon. I married and created a product line once our daughter Shina was born. After the birth of our son Chase, I decided to take some classes in business just to strengthen my skills. Those classes resulted in me obtaining my associate’s degree in marketing.

After being in business for so many years, I decided to make the sacrifice and return to college to obtain my bachelor’s degree for self-gratification. I figured that I had done so much in my career by working on movie and video sets and writing for beauty publications, while running my natural hair salon. I discovered that Spelman had a program for non-traditional students called the Pauline E. Drake Scholars Program that had a portfolio course that would take the nontraditional student life experiences and apply them as college credits. With an associate’s degree and the portfolio program, I was sure to spend only a year-and-a-half at Spelman.

Taking the Plunge

Accepted to Spelman in 2008, I was up for the challenge while still being married, with two active children and running my business at a slower pace. It turned out not only were my previous college credits not accepted at Spelman, but the portfolio program was no longer available. I would be starting college with 15 college credits while needing 120 to graduate. With a little disappointment and a lot of determination, I pressed forward taking one to three classes a semester.

Taking required classes like African Diaspora and the world and intro to women’s studies helped me to go through the journey without worrying about the time it would take to graduate. The experience gave me inner strength to accomplish my journey as a nontraditional student. Intro to women’s studies gave me a global perspective on women in society past and present. I realized that there is still work needed to enhance the lives of women nationally and globally although women are legally considered equal.

Swimming Upstream

I have had major challenges with my schedule. Some semesters I take all morning classes, while my kids are in school. Some semesters I take the once-a-week evening classes. Another obstacle I’ve experienced is the disconnection with some of the traditional students. The age factor plays a part with traditional students not being able to relate to a nontraditional student.

One student thought that I may have been a prior student at Spelman who had to drop out because I got pregnant. She also said that she thought my reason for coming  back  was  because  I had a deadend  job and  needed to complete  my  degree at Spelman to succeed . There were times when I became  frustrated if I was  assigned to do a group project and my classmates would have no consideration for a family emergency with my children, or maybe  not  even  expect  me  to  fully  be  involved  because  I was  a  nontraditional  student.

Some of my greatest experiences here at Spelman College have been me taking one or two traditional students under my wing and mentoring them. Most of these young ladies have been brilliant and independent thinkers; however, with the added input of real life experiences, and advisement from an older sister student the impact truly prepares future leaders.

My major is comparative women’s studies. My degree is a foundation for my pursuit of a master’s   degree in counseling. I also plan to expand my  company  into a center for women  that  provides  programs   centered  around  counseling and  beauty education and entrepreneurship.  My ultimate goal  is  to   provide  these  programs  globally though  film media to help  fill the need for women and  children  in  underserved  areas.  – Nekesa J. Smith, C’2013, is comparative women’s studies major.

We want to hear from you! Be sure to join us here for Inside Spelman’s Live Discussion on Wednesday, October. 26, from noon to 1 p.m. to share your thoughts on the non-traditional undergraduate experience.  

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  1. says

    My name is Helen R. Richmond, C 95. I can truly relate to Nekesa Smith’s non-traditional student story. I matriculated through Spelman from 1991-95, as a non-traditional student, graduating salutatarian with a 3.97 GPA. I worked there 30 hours, had a husband, was active in my church and raising a 9 month old granddaughter ( as of my Junior year. It was challenging, but quite rewarding. I was fortunate enough to take day classes and did get the intermingling experience with the traditional students. I went on to obtain a Master of Divinity at Candler School of Theology and graduated with the Class of 98. I had the opportunity to return to Spelman as part-time faculty in the Phil/Religion Dept where I taught several religion courses. Currently, I am in my first year of law school (a 20 year old dream) at the University of Tenn., Knoxville. It all started at Spelman. I took hold of the great programs and scholarships that helped throughout and now am embarking on a new profession. I want to create innovative ways of counsel by blending my current status as ordained minister with my future status of attorney. Nekesa, keep up the good work and never give up. I am very impressed with what you are doing and just know that hard work and determination will get you everywhere. I, of course, also put God first and allow God to direct my path. Be blessed.

  2. Snoog says

    I am very proud of my “big” cuz. I was fortunate enough to pursue my college degrees as a traditional student right after high school, but I never had a chance to truly appreciate the opportunities afforded to me until I was out of school. Nay, you truly have the best of both worlds (though it may not seem like that on some days) of being able to apply all of your experience to your educational endeavors as a non-traditional student! Continue to stay focused and accept every challenge head on! You will continue to do great things….this I know!!!!

  3. says


    It is great to see “the other student” spotlighted and/or recognized as a contributing member of the Spelman community. Many of us are not merely older women looking to “finally” finish school. Many of us chose Spelman College because we recognize that will ALL we have to offer, Spelman would certainly help bring forth opportunities that otherwise may not be afforded to us as women of color. Some of us have been in corporate america and have become successful entrepreneurs while holding down full-time domestic positions i.e. mother, wife, care provider for elderly parents and the likes… I am happy to finally see recognition where it is due.

  4. Alicia Sands Lurry says

    I’m proud to call Nekesa my hair stylist, and my friend. I’ve known Nekesa since 2006, and over the years, I’ve seen her blossom into an immensely creative, determined and ambitious woman who never loses sight of her dreams. Her poise, talent and work ethic are a constant reminder of what makes her so remarkable. Congratulations on your journey, Nekesa!

  5. Yasmeen 'C 2010 PEDS says

    Great Article Nakesa!

    This is a great article and a refelection of one out many awesome, fabulous and intelligent women at Spelman College that are non-traditional students. Spelman will always have a tender place in my heart because it is symbolic of a mother or grandmother to me. I have had the opportunity to study and learn from so many awesome women of color as a student here and as a graduate I stand on the shoulders of those who have paved the way. May God’s light continue to shine upon this great place and bless all my Spelman sisters!

  6. AK says

    This is a great story and a testament to how Spelman is able to embrace all women and help them to achieve their professional goals and their goals as women. Congratulations to this student/woman, you are a great example for others.

  7. Chris says

    Thank you, Nekeesa. Your story is motivating and empowering. As a traditional transfer student,I sometimes feel a bit disconnected from my fellow “spelman students.” And While I am not a wife and juggling the responsibilities you are, I am a working student and I have to work harder to stay afloat. Whether the young women say it or not, I know there’s at least one who’s inspired and encouraged. Be it tradiational or nontraditional, I can respect and admire any woman who has an unwavering drive for self satisfaction and knowledge– ESPECIALLY a Spelman Sister.
    sisterly – Your unknown little spelman sister

  8. jdavis44 says

    Welcome to Inside Spelman’s live discussion about the nontraditional student experience. Please share your thoughts!

  9. says

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments about this article. I am exicted that we can provide visibility for our nontraditional students via Inside Spelman. The article and the comments are both inspiring and motivating to those who think a college degree in latter years is unrealistic–particulary from Spelman College. I received my degree from Spelman College at the ripe young age of 46 and graduated magna cum laude. I am now a part of the team that produces Inside Spelman, an online vehicle that is one of the many driving forces to remind all that it’s never too late to educate. Kudos to Pauline E. Drake, the Pauline E. Drake Scholars, and the nontraditional students that came before us clearing the path so that we could navigate more successfuly. DaNita Brady McClain, C’2003

    • Sylvia Britt says

      Nakeesa, I’m so glad that you were spotlighted as a PEDS Scholar. I understand truly the challenges of being a non-traditional student. I am so glad that Spelman is highlighting the hard work and dedication of non-traditional students. Unfortunately, I had to return to California to take care of my mom. Fortunately, I’m attending another women’s college in Oakland that embraces the non-traditional woman and her dreams. Thanks for your story sister. contact me on facebook.

  10. Cheryl E. Triplett says

    Absolutely awesome. Not just because It praised Nekesa sometimes, but because it really gave insight about real life and what Pauline E. Drake Scholars represent.

    God’s speed in your ultimate goals.

  11. Michelle Fench says

    I also graduated from Spelman. While working fulltime and planning a wedding. The major issue was dealing with major medical problems. I encourage anyone who is thinking about going back to school to do it. It will be very rewarding!! The support from my PEDS sisters was wonderful!!Join school clubs and be involved.I would not trade my time at Spelman for anything,a truly great experience!!

    Michelle Fench-Darmom
    C/O 2011
    Miss PEDS 2010-2011

  12. WISHING I COULD says

    Is this for real. I’ve always wanted to go to Spelman. I went straight into the military after high school bc my family was very poor and couldnt afford an education. I wanted to send money home to help my family. I’m looking into starting my education at 30. I feel so old starting out so late. I still feel my heart gearing towards Spelman after all these years. Seeing this article really gave me some hope and really inspired me. I’m lost at where to even begin. Thanks so much to you and other ladies doing it at later years.

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