The road to college graduation is infrequently a straightforward path for students with many facing a myriad of challenges between themselves and their diplomas. For some, circumstances impact their ability to start or finish their degrees on time, or require a level of responsibility and accountability not experienced by their peers. These students often identify as non-traditional--those who worked full-time to attend college part-time, those with caregiver responsibilities, or those who took an extended break before starting or completing their undergraduate studies.

Michael Kozma (B.S.), Emily Pattok (B.A.), and Jacob Wasik (B.A.) are three such non-traditional students graduating this winter from the Department of Economics here at Michigan. Though their unique circumstances set them apart, they share a drive to better themselves that exemplifies the spirit of Michigan to be leaders and best.

"U-M doesn't spoon feed you anything. It's endlessly frustrating, [but] you learn how to find answers in the real world. The independence and problem solving skills you gain are far greater than any piece of knowledge that you may have acquired." -Michael Kozma

Graduating right up the road from Ann Arbor from Chelsea High School in 2008, Michael grew up a Wolverine fan watching U-M football. Though he always thought highly of the institution, Michael self-describes his younger self as a “poor student” who had no hopes of ever attending U-M. After a brief and unfortunately unsuccessful stint at a small college, Michael joined the Army Infantry and moved to his station in Colorado. He would stay with the Army through 2014, during which time he married his wife and served abroad twice in deployments in Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula.

Upon completion of his service, Michael’s family moved back to Michigan where he would work odd jobs until deciding to attend Washtenaw Community College in 2016 with plans of going to the police academy. His first semester surprised him, though, when he received the first 4.0 of his life and began wondering what it would take to transfer to U-M. Four semesters and 66 credits later, Michael transferred to U-M in 2018 as a junior with his 4.0 intact, excited to join the student section at the Big House. 

Like Michael, Jacob grew up in the area and has always been “enthralled” by the prestige of U-M. His aunt and uncle, who were proud alumni (class of ’87), would take him to games where the overwhelming school spirit—the sight of so many people coming together behind the team and institution—would leave him speechless. After graduating high school, Jacob knew he needed to do something with himself, but wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do and enrolled at Macomb Community College with the goal of moving on and obtaining his bachelor’s degree. After two years, Jacob applied to one school, telling himself if he wasn’t accepted, he would have to figure something else out. He need not have worried, though, and transferred to U-M as a sophomore in 2018. 

"I'm proud that I am graduating [and] that I stepped up to take care of my family... I grew immensely as a person and... learned how to fail with grace [as well as] how to move forward and commit to change." -Emily Pattok

Emily’s path to Michigan was more direct than Michael or Jacob’s, though her decision to come to Ann Arbor was very differently informed. Though she started college immediately after high school, Emily did so with the knowledge that at any time she must be prepared to step into the role of primary caregiver to her two teenage brothers should anything happen to her grandparents (who had adopted them when she was 8). Emily’s sense of responsibility influenced her decision to come to U-M, a school she trusted to give her degree weight, prioritizing proximity to home over larger, out of state schools. Sadly, this was a good decision.

In January of 2020, Emily lost her grandfather, and that August her grandmother followed. Emily, who had been taught by her grandmother that taking care of family is always first priority, stepped into the role of primary caregiver to her brothers, planned the funeral, and found a lawyer to take full responsibility for her family. She is now the legal guardian of her brothers and co co-executor and co-trustee for her grandparent’s estate. Emily is also the caregiver for her special-needs aunt. Had this past year, with all its challenges and losses, not been remote due to COVID-19 Emily would have had to drop out from U-M to take care of her family. Instead, she was able to shift to being a part-time student to stay on track for graduation while ensuring all her new responsibilities are handled.

Like Emily, this grim year impacted by the pandemic held surprising opportunities for Michael and Jacob, as well. Though all have found remote studies to be alienating and difficult in different ways, Michael, who had been commuting to campus, has appreciated this time saved, and Jacob has found great flexibility in his remote classes as he’s attended school part time in order to work full-time to put himself through college. 

"I wanted to be a Wolverine, so I made sacrifices and kept focused on my goal of graduating from Michigan [and] have gained an appreciation for diversity that I was never exposed to before I came to Ann Arbor." -Jacob Wasik

Working 60 hours a week, Jacob manages a wholesale produce government contract that helps families in need, shipping almost 100,000 boxes filled with produce, meat, and dairy from his warehouse to food pantries and churches anywhere from Detroit all the way to Puerto Rico. Highly motivated knowing his work is making real impacts on others, Jacob applies this enthusiasm to his interest in economics, as well; excited by how applicable the field is to understanding so many things in daily life, and deeply interested in how the world is going to address the ever-growing issue of currency inflation. 

Emily was likewise drawn to economics by its relevance to so many disciplines and facets of life. First formally exposed to it in high school where she enjoyed the discussion of current events in a way like none of her other coursework, Emily now sees economics as something inescapable and finds herself particularly compelled by the inequality women continue to face in the world and feeling a need to in some way contribute towards bettering women's relationship with economics. 

For Michael, he didn’t know much about economics or the economy when he decided to pursue studies in it. Rather, he was troubled by how frequently misunderstood the field is by most people, especially given the broad influence of economics. Michael didn’t know about the career prospects or earning potential of his degree, or whether he would be any good at it, but it felt important to him—seeing economics as about decisions and believing everyone could use some additional help making the right decisions. 

Though these graduates encountered struggles as non-traditional students, from trouble connecting with their peers to feeling like they are not always welcome, they have found support from professors and advisors, as well as found ways to not only get involved on campus, but also affirm to themselves they belong here. 

Being a married student and commuting made it hard for Michael to join with other students at odd hours to study, but he was still able to find extracurriculars to get a full experience at U-M. He participated in UROP, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, during the summer before his first term at U-M and found it enlightening to not only see how research is really done at U-M, but also contribute to it. He also became heavily involved in triathlons and finished both an Ironman (140.6 miles) and a half-Ironman (70.3 miles) during his undergraduate education. 

With so much going on at home, Emily had limited opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, volunteer, or go the extra-mile as she progressed through her degree. Instead, she increasingly needed to focus on getting by and accepting that this was ok and the other things in her life were also valuable learning opportunities. She was, however, able to participate in solar panel research in her first-year chemistry class and complete a summer engineering internship before switching focus to economics, as well as play weekend games of Survivor: Michigan—a game put on by a U-M club based off the TV show Survivor, and which she’d won twice. This feat Emily is particularly proud of, given that most players do not win even once. The games taught her to fail with grace and to move forward and commit to change. 

For Jacob, joining the Michigan Snowboard Club, for which he was the social chair and treasurer, has been “one of the greatest treats of going to Michigan'' and where he met some of his best friends, many of whom were also transfer students. Jacob also helped re-found Phi Delta Theta on campus, honored to restore a fraternity centered around the principles of friendship, sound learning, and rectitude. 

As they close out the last week of their undergraduate programs, Michael, Emily, and Jacob look forward to life after graduation. Michael will be continuing on here at U-M, hoping his economics background will inform the work he does in the School of Information towards getting his masters in data science. Though her circumstances currently delay Emily’s search for employment, she hopes to soon work for a company that values her economics education, and is open to pursuing a master’s degree in the coming years. Jacob likewise hopes to find a job that utilizes his degree and may pursue a master’s in business in the future.