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STANFORD -- Early each morning, while most of her fellow Stanford University undergraduates are still in bed, Paula Shoemake is bustling about, getting her two children ready for school. Then she climbs onto a bike and heads off for a full day of classes, study and work as a research assistant.

Shoemake is a 34-year-old single mother who transferred to Stanford this fall after graduating first in her class at West Valley Community College in Saratoga, Calif. She is on welfare - as she has been since her husband left three years ago - and even finding money for books is a constant worry, despite scholarship aid.

"It's scary for me," she said, on the first day of classes. "I'm just wondering if I'll be able to make the grade."

Although older, "non-traditional" students like Shoemake have become increasingly common at state and community colleges in the past decade, 18- to 24-year-olds still dominate the undergraduate scene at most highly selective private universities.

However, according to a survey last year by the American Council on Education, 67 percent of all private colleges and universities reported an increase in the number of returning adult students.

At Stanford, about 30 of this year's 143 undergraduate transfer students are in their mid-20s to early 40s, up from 11 last year and eight in 1990-91. They include a former Buddhist monk, a U.S. Army Green Beret, a successful businesswoman and a professional ballerina.

"These students not only bring very strong records of achievement in college, they also add spice to the undergraduate student body through their interesting life experiences and accomplishments," said William Tingley, director of transfer admissions.

"I think this is one of the most interesting and diverse transfer classes we've ever admitted."

Many of the non-traditional students, like psychology major Shoemake, are mothers seeking skills for entry into the workplace.

Others are seeking career change. Tari Vickery, a 41-year-old former carpet manufacturer from Oklahoma, wants to do research in sociology so she can start a career as a consultant to family-owned businesses.

"I had planned to transfer to Oklahoma State University and study business," said Vickery, who moved to Stanford this fall with her husband and young son. "But then I decided, if I was going to invest in education, I wanted the best I could get.

"The only problem now," she said with a laugh, "is that the other students won't sit next to me in class. I must seem like a mother to them."

Participating in class discussions with students one or even two decades younger is only one of the challenges faced by non- traditional students. Financial worries, fears of academic inadequacy and family responsibilities also can weigh much more heavily on older students.

At the same time, older students have many advantages over their 20-year-old counterparts.

"Younger students have other problems on their minds, like whom they're going to date on Friday night," said Kathy Wright, an undergraduate student adviser.

Transfer students usually perform as well as, and in some cases better than, freshmen.

"They do not take their educational experience for granted - and you can double that for people over 25," Wright said. "They're not just passing by. They are here to experience fully the educational benefits of the university."

Eric Whitney, a 31-year-old transfer student from Los Angeles City College, couldn't agree more.

"I don't think I would have been nearly as good a student at 21," said Whitney, who pursued acting and construction work before returning to college full time. "Back then, I wasn't ready to commit myself to education. I was more curious about what was going on outside of school."

Today, he said, "I really have chiseled myself into being a good student. I now see the importance of studying earnestly, of pushing to do a high level of work."

This year, a total of 1,265 transfer students applied to Stanford, of whom 195 were admitted and 143 enrolled. Half of the new transfer students had a combined SAT score of more than 1300; 64 percent had a college grade point average of 3.6 to 4.0.



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