Non-Traditional Student Pursues Art Dream


Most students come to college with dreams of preparing for their future careers. By the time 57-year-old Sarah Tolliver arrived on campus this fall, she already had a career behind her, and her goal after graduation is solely to pursue her passion: art.

 A non-traditional student from Ellington, Missouri, Tolliver always knew she wanted to be an artist, she just wasn’t sure what kind.

“I’ve spent decades picking up pencils and paintbrushes and putting them down again when life got in the way,” Tolliver said. “There was a time about 20 years ago when I had a real shot at getting a career moving, and it was very clear to me that in addition to some gaping holes in my skill set, I just didn’t have the depth of knowledge or self-discipline to realize my ambitions.”

Born in St. Louis, Tolliver and her family moved to California before she started second grade. She graduated high school in 1981 and began her college career at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She decided on a college at the last minute and all of the dorm rooms were taken, forcing her to live off campus. At 17 years old she was not as mature as she imagined herself to be and ended up not managing her time well.

“Some of what I learned is: my mother was right, and the road to hell really is paved with good intentions,” Tolliver said. “Making lists and writing things down in planners is great, but to succeed in college, or in life, you have to do the work.”

After her first attempt at college, she joined the Navy in 1989, which led her to Rota, Spain, and a job in aviation maintenance administration with Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two (VQ-2). While in Spain, she met her husband, Randy, and they were married in Gibraltar in early 1991. After six years of active duty, she left the Navy. She and her husband moved numerous times before landing in Maryland where they bought a Victorian fixer-upper in a suburb of Baltimore.

Tolliver spent the next 14 years renovating the house while also pursuing her art career again. During this time, she and Randy purchased a farm in Ellington where they plan to retire. For a while she traveled back and forth between the farm and Baltimore before moving to Missouri permanently in 2014.

Tolliver heard about Truman while taking horse riding lessons. Her trainer mentioned that one or two of her former students attended Truman for the equestrian team, which is what originally caught Tolliver’s attention. After additional research she learned about Truman’s Art Department and thought it would be an excellent fit.

Like other full-time students, Tolliver moved to Kirksville to pursue education. While she is temporarily away from her husband, one family member that made the trip was her horse, Bella. Tolliver is also a member of the equestrian team and boards Bella at the University Farm. There are several other activities on campus that interest her, but she keeps in mind the lessons she learned from her first college experience.

“Overwhelmed equals disaster,” Tolliver said. “So, I have taken a reluctant pass on some other clubs for now, and I am jumping with both feet into Windfall, the campus literary and art magazine.”

Tolliver said this journey alongside others who are younger has been challenging. She is aware every day that she doesn’t instantly fit in, but by and large her fellow students have been kind to her. Aside from being homesick for her husband and animals at the farm, she is liking her time at Truman. She is especially impressed with the professionalism, depth of knowledge and responsiveness of her professors.

“I appreciate the lower student-to-teacher ratio,” she said. “There is time for meaningful discussion, and thus learning, that would not be possible in larger classes.”

After graduation, Tolliver plans to go back to the farm and make creative expression an integral part of her life. She hopes to have mastered the skills to both execute the art she sees in her head and also find a market for it. Her preferred medium is acrylics.

“I want instant action, instant color, instant satisfaction, and the louder and messier the process is, the happier I am,” Tolliver said.

Although she came to Truman to learn, her life experiences can translate into lessons for others, particularly non-traditional students.

“There is no such thing as too late,” she said. “Life is short. Choose the contentment that comes from realizing your potential.”