Dedication pushes student to graduate at 38

Pablo Rangel returned to school after more than 10 years in the construction industry.

Story and photos by Ryan Evans, NewsNetNebraska

Like many University of Nebraska-Lincoln seniors, Pablo Rangel is looking forward to graduation this May.

At 38, his journey toward dual degrees has been longer than most. He majors in history and Latin American studies.

After two years in college, he dropped out to work full time in 1993. He found a comfortable home in the construction industry, eventually running his own business.

But after he left UNL, he always wanted to return to finish his degree.

He would sometimes drive around campus while working his construction job, and he could sense the atmosphere.

“The first day of school, when I was not going to school, was always the most energized day of my year,” he said. “But, it was also the most depressing.”

Then the economic slump in 2007 got him thinking seriously about returning to UNL.

“Perhaps I was successful monetarily, but it was totally hinged on other people’s success,” Rangel said. “Since I only had a labor skill and not an intellectual skill, I was limited by other people’s success.”

Rangel’s wife, Tammy Lee, provided the final push he needed to return to campus. She entered his old student data on UNL’s website, and ultimately he was readmitted.

“I felt a big mixture of pride in his willingness to make a difference in our lives, excitement for what the future would hold for him, and nervousness that the experience would not be what he was hoping for or wanted,” she said.

Rangel has taken lessons learned at work and applied them to the classroom. Now he is a full time student with three part-time jobs on campus.

“I treat my student day as if it were a job,” he said. “I get up early, before the sun, take a shower, drink my coffee, read the dailies and am on campus by 8:00 a.m.”

Rangel will often remain on campus until 5:00 p.m., filling his time with reading in the library, working or visiting with professors and fellow students. Then, he heads home to study more.

Rangel’s wife estimated that he spends 60 hours a week on studies.

“At times, he is really exhausted and stressed out, but also very glad he has this opportunity to change his life,” she said.

That dedication sets Rangel apart from many younger students.

“I’m involving myself more completely on campus and in the departments,” he said. “I really work closely with my professors, asking questions and borrowing extra books.”

While Rangel’s age may make him a nontraditional student, he does not always see himself that way.

“I am conscious of never being that student who says things like, ‘when I was your age,’ because I think that can build barriers,” he said.

As a nontraditional student, Rangel may be in the majority, at least nationally.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a nontraditional student has any of the following characteristics:

  • Delays enrollment in post-secondary education in the same calendar year that he or she finished high school;
  • Attends school part time for at least part of the academic year
  • Works full time while enrolled
  • Is considered financially independent for purposes of determining financial aid
  • Has dependents other than a spouse
  • Is a single parent
  • Does not have a high school diploma

By these qualifications, the center estimates that, as of the last available census data from 2000, 73 percent of post-secondary undergraduates could be classified as nontraditional students.

At UNL, it’s not easy to pinpoint the number of nontraditional students enrolled. Nowhere does the university officially define what a nontraditional student is.

JoAnn Moseman, academic transfer coordinator at UNL, said there are a wide variety of definitions and it is often up to each student to define himself or herself as nontraditional.

“For example, at New Student Enrollment, a session for nontraditional students is offered, but students self identify,” she said.

More nontraditional students come to UNL as transfer students, rather than first-time students, Moseman said.

“If they are over 25 they likely have some college credit, possibly military credit,” she said.

Because UNL does not keep records of students’ marital or employment statuses, or if they have financial dependents, age is the only defining attribute for tracking nontraditional students.

Most students who did not enroll in college immediately after high school tend to begin higher education at community colleges, some of which target adult students who are nonresidential, Moseman said.

“UNL is a traditional, residential research university, so it is no surprise that most of the students are traditional students straight from high school,” she said.

Although UNL has no official data on nontraditional students, Moseman said about  five percent of undergraduates are over 24 while around 10 percent of transfer students are over 25.

She set out to address concerns on the transitions web page for transfer students. The site provides links for everything from child care options to support groups.

“(Nontraditional students) include parents of small children, middle-aged people returning to school after their children leave home or as a result of career change, military veterans, spouses of staff and faculty, single parents, working adults and I could keep going,” Moseman said. “They are not a cohesive group.”

Pablo Rangel reviews his notes following his class, The Mythic West.

Although some may classify Rangel as nontraditional, he is comfortable among his younger peers.

Part of being an undergraduate, he said, is working with other students who are on his same level of academic progress.

“People always comment to me about how many people I seem to know on campus,” he said. “Most of the people that I wave to or talk to as I walk around are people that I have collaborated with in classes.”

That attitude has helped land him on the Dean’s List every semester since his 2008 return to UNL.

Rangel attributes much of his success in the classroom to increased involvement and awareness on campus.

“I don’t think a lot of students take advantage of that (opportunity),” he said. “I would say that is probably a giant step toward success for me.”

Rangel also wants to see his fellow students be successful, which is why one of his jobs involves tutoring and mentoring students in the athletic department. There, his real world experience helps him to help others.

“How to organize, be a successful student and a good citizen, those are some of the qualities that I like to help students with,” he said.

Mentoring is part of a process that Rangel has used himself.

“Without the mentorship that I’ve had, specifically from the advisers that I use in arts and sciences, without their leadership and without them reaching down to pull me up, this wouldn’t be happening,” he said.

Rangel exudes confidence while remaining grounded in pursuit of his ultimate goal of obtaining his undergraduate degree.

“Pablo going to school has had a dramatic effect on the way he looks at life,” Lee said. “He literally walks with a spring in his step and his head is held high.”

In about six months, the first step in Rangel’s long journey will finally end. As he approaches graduation, his enthusiasm is not likely to waver.

“He is most always excited to tell me about his day and his eyes sparkle when he does,” Lee said. “Who wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone like that?”

His positive attitude and ability to immerse himself in campus life are some of the traits that Rangel hopes will guide him to obtaining advanced degrees.

“I’m passionate about what I’m learning, about the work I do,” he said. “So, it’s easier to get up every day.”

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