09/26/2014 06:09 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Transferring From Community College to Top University Can Be Done: Advice From an Adult Learner

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As a nontraditional college student, I understand the worries that come with being an adult learner -- the concern of being significantly older than the rest of your peers, whether you'll be able to keep up with the coursework, and the general concern of finding your place in what is traditionally a "younger person's world." Although by the time I was 26, I had lived all over Europe and South America, worked in the independent film industry, and had helped to raise three children in my family, I was a bit nervous about pursuing my lifelong dream to earn a college degree.

But, as I prepare in a few weeks to attend Stanford University, where I'll complete my bachelor's degree, I realize that a college degree can be within reach for many of my peers. After completing my first two years at community college, I was faced with the fortunate dilemma of having to choose between no fewer than eight of the nation's top institutions. As I set out on the next journey of my academic career, I wanted to share advice for students like me. As with most anything in life worth having, the journey was not without its own set of obstacles, some of which had taken root far before my actual college experience was to begin. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's back up a bit.

When the rest of my high school class was busy filling out college applications, I was facing the stark reality that I would be unable to afford college. I was already working several jobs just to help make ends meet at home. For the next 10 years, I continued to work to help support my family. Despite the time that had elapsed, I never lost my motivation to learn. It was the explosion of awe I felt when opening my first encyclopedia as a boy, or the shortness of breath when looking at the moon through my first telescope that inspired me, and still inspires me even now. Lofty goals will always be met with adversity, and that's where perseverance comes in.

The reality is, I am not the only highly-motivated student who had to put college dreams on hold as a teenager. College tuition and fees went up 89% between 2002 and 2012, and student debt is now larger nationally than credit card debt. With this in mind, community college was the most obvious and realistic option for me. I decided to enroll in the American Honors Program at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. I knew that going back to school would need to be affordable, and that I wanted opportunities to establish myself both academically and socially that set me up for admissions and scholarships at a top four-year school. The honors program could not have been a better personal fit. Aside from being affordable, priced far below university averages, I found great value in challenging coursework, motivated peers, and helpful advising.

My honors advisors made the process personable, providing support for anything from the school transfer selection to essay proofreading, to general problem solving be it academic or personal in nature. The honors-level coursework was designed to challenge and prepare me, and to ensure that more of my classes would transfer for credit at my next institution. Not to mention, the American Honors program has an ever growing network of four-year universities available to its students, making it easier to transfer your credits and save money.

For adults who are considering the same path, here are six lessons I learned in my pursuit:

1. Be diligent: Opt for difficult courses that can challenge you so you are prepared for higher-level coursework when you transfer. Set a high standard for yourself, and aim to consistently perform at or above that level.

2. Show improvement: Despite what you may think, bad high school grades or a few bad college classes do not translate into "GAME OVER." What most colleges are looking for is improvement: a demonstration of what you learned from your initial experience.

3. Be accountable: Take responsibility for both your actions and their consequences. It's a waste of time to blame others, and could ultimately cause more harm to yourself than anyone else.

4. Get involved: Colleges are impressed with excellent GPAs and evidence of improvement, but they're also looking for a demonstration of well-roundedness in their applicants.

5. Ask for help: Advisors and professors want to help you, but you often need to seek that help out. If you have a concern, or a question that needs answering- ask.

6. "Know thyself": It is this constant willingness to reflect on our past successes and failures, as well as those to come, that will ultimately help us make better choices.

As someone once told me, "failure is okay; complacency is not," and it's true. Contentedness is simpler -- more comfortable, and often appears in the guise of safety. However it will almost always hinder progress, making it impossible to move forward. My lesson to future adult learners is simple: if we can face the fear of failure rather than run from it, we stand to learn far more.