Nontraditional student. Definitions of that term vary, but most interpretations include factors like age, work and family commitments, among others. Illinois State University even offers orientation days tailored for those who fit the category. Maybe the real defining characteristic is that nontraditional students have multiple, interesting layers that add to campus life. That could be said of Walter Reeves, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice sciences at the age of 48.

Right after graduating from Pekin Community High School in 1992, Reeves joined the U.S. Army Reserve and served six years. He worked nearly 20 years at Proctor Hospital in Peoria as a respiratory therapist, but when now-9-year-old daughter, Grace, was born, he became a stay-at-home dad. By 2012, with his loving and supportive wife, Melanie, well established in her job as an advanced practice trauma nurse, they decided the new father would become a college student. That decision eventually led to Illinois State, where Reeves has spent the last two years studying.

A lot has changed in a short time. The couple has also been caring for three foster children they are now in the process of adopting. That includes siblings Arabella, 9, and Joseph, 7, who have been with them for five years, and Billy, who is 2. Going back to college was also for them.

“My mother-in-law said it’s been a great example for my children in a card she wrote to me,” Reeves said. “I guess I taught us all the long game, the bigger picture, and that things that are worthwhile aren’t easy and take time.”

His own mother, Margie Kelso, has been a key player in his success, he said.

“Without my mom, none of this would have been possible,” he said. “From watching the kids and picking them up from school, there’s a laundry list of things she did, and the kids formed a bond with her. I think everybody won; we all learned something about ourselves.”

In the process, Reeves taught his kids about persistence and the importance of education, but he never forgot his main objective: “And, I’d like a job. And, having a job is fun.”

The long days weren’t always easy. He’d never been away from the kids or absent from home as often as he was for school.

“But, sometimes I’d giggle going out the door, and sometimes I felt guilty,” he said. “The biggest challenge was learning how to prioritize my family life and educational life and putting things in the correct order.”

Reeves is happy he won’t be writing any more papers but will miss his teachers, saying he always felt he was in good hands and felt their support when he was struggling. They taught him how to think and how to consume and understand complex material. And, they did it pretty well as Reeves is graduating summa cum laude, with a perfect 4.0 GPA and a gold cord to wear with his cap and gown.

Tracy Hanson, his academic advisor, isn’t surprised.

“Walter was an exceptional student, and he was on the ball,” Hanson said. “Throughout the time I worked with Walter, I learned about his family life and have the utmost respect for this man. I wish Walter all of the best in his future endeavors, and I look forward to seeing where life takes him.”

Reeves has similar feelings about Hanson, whom he said was always there when he needed her.

“She made me feel welcome, especially when I felt intimidated at big a university,” he said. “I was pretty stressed about coming here in the beginning.”

Currently, Reeves has an academic internship as an investigator with the Department of Children and Family Services. With his new degree, his dream job, he said, would be to work at the Illinois State Police Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center in Springfield. He already knows the answer to one potential interview question.

“While in school I was raising four kids and two dogs—that proves my organizational skills if I’m asked,” he said.

The modest Reeves, who describes himself as a “normal, below-average guy,” said the biggest lesson he learned during these college years came from his spouse, the nurse and professional caregiver.

“My wife always says that the kids are watching,” Reeves said. “I always have to remember that because what we do influences how they turn out.”

There’s really nothing average about that or about Walter Reeves and his family.

This story is part of a series of profiles on Redbirds who are graduating this May. For more information about how Illinois State is celebrating commencement this semester, visit the Graduation Services website.