Junior physical education major Aaren Woodworth doesn’t stand out as a non-traditional student at SUNY Cortland.
“I blend in very, very well,” said Woodworth, a Long Island native who grew up in Lindenhurst, N.Y. “We did an adventure activity in which we had to line up with each other in order of age, and people kept trying to cut in front of me. I kept saying, ‘I’m 25,’ and people would say, ‘Never mind.’”
Separated from classmates by a few years and a wealth of life experience, Woodworth sometimes finds life back on a college campus is a little weird.
“But at the same time I’m very fortunate to have had the life experiences that I’ve had,” he said. “I feel I can be of assistance to people.”
In 2014, fresh out of high school as a conventional biology student with a chemistry minor at Hofstra University, he had his eyes on medical school.
“Honestly, my grades weren’t bad, but I wasn’t as passionate as the people around me were,” Woodworth said. “I wasn’t interested in going to Biology Club. I thought this should be a whole lot easier if this is what I wanted to do forever.”
He dropped out of college in late 2015 and began transitioning his gender identity to the man he felt he was really meant to be.
“I was focused on living my life authentically and paying the bills,” he said. “My transition, and mental health issues, played a large role in my dropping out of Hofstra.”
Woodworth made coffee at Starbucks, rising in responsibility while living on his own in Uniondale, N.Y. In 2018, he sold life insurance.
“Then I decided to take a job at a summer camp,” Woodworth said. “I thought, ‘What more fun way to spend a summer,’ and it would be a lot more interesting. I was looking for a complete change of pace.”
“There’s nothing like being outdoors. It’s such clarity, it’s awesome,” said Woodworth, who since that summer in 2019 has continued to work summers at Kenwal Day Camp in Melville, N.Y. He earned certification to safely supervise the camp’s climbing wall and also became a specialist in managing a zip line and an obstacle course.
“I was the oldest applicant so they trusted me to keep the kids safe on the wall,” he said.
“I ruled that activity with an iron fist. I told those kids, ‘If this was a basketball court, I wouldn’t have to be that crazy about this. But it’s 12 feet in the air so if you can’t listen to me on the ground, you can’t go into the air.’
“That job really changed my life, helping those kids overcome challenges and challenge themselves and face their fears. Over the summer I saw so much real learning and growth in those kids and I developed so many relationships with others. I learned so much about myself.
“I wanted to do this forever, but the kids go to school for 10 months of the year. I was trying to think of the best subject of teaching different types of lessons in experiential learning. And physical education was the answer.”
An online search led him to SUNY Cortland’s Physical Education Program, where he decided to concentrate in outdoor adventure education.
“It’s all about finding those lifetime activities that we can enjoy,” he said. “You won’t always have that soccer team to join. But rock climbing, orienteering and hiking will always be there for you.”
At 23, he deferred enrollment until Fall 2020 while taking classes at his local community college.Woodworth currently serves in his second semester as a teaching assistant for the health-related physical fitness course taught by Bryce Farrell, an adjunct lecturer in physical education.
“Physical education has the elements of biology and chemistry,” Woodworth said. “We learn about the body, we learn about how the body moves. It’s amazing, really, how well it’s fitting together. And how I couldn’t bring myself to be as engaged and passionate with the regular biology material, but seeing very similar material in a different context, it’s a world of difference.”
Woodworth sometimes feels a bit like a physician-in-training.
“Really, I like to think of physical education as kind of like preventive medicine, in a type of way, like preventive pediatrics,” Woodworth said. “Because if they can take care of themselves from the beginning, hopefully they don’t have to go see the doctor later on. It gives them all the tools they need to be successful.”
Looking back on his own high school experience, he sees a real need for professionals who are less focused on team sports.
“I would love to be able to do a better job so they don’t end up unsure of how to take care of their own health,” Woodworth said. “That they understand basic nutrition. They understand it’s very important to stay active. That just because they don’t think they are interested in sports doesn’t mean they don’t have a body that needs to be maintained to stay healthy.”
On Nov. 19, 2020, during that year’s Transgender Awareness Week, he joined Nancy Kane, an adjunct lecturer in kinesiology, who has a current research focus on the question of transgender and nonbinary sports participation in a binary sports world. They presented a virtual President’s Office sandwich seminar titled “Toward a Future of Athletic Inclusiveness: Perspectives on Transgender and Nonbinary Collegiate Participation in Sports Activities.” They discussed the many barriers to sport participation for students with a non-binary gender identity, including language, testing, feeling physically safe in athletic facilities and access to sport team membership.
“I got a lot of really great support,” he said. “It definitely was me stepping outside my comfort zone. I’m thankful to Dr. Kane for allowing me to do so. I was able to talk about my own personal issues. Just a little vulnerability goes a long way.”
Woodworth is set to co-present a similar lecture later this month at the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Conference in Verona, N.Y. He’s never met his co-presenter Casey Langendorfer, a middle school health teacher, but they connected over email after he had admired her presentation.
Woodworth will accompany his classmates to Washington, D.C., for the national physical education “Speak Out Day” of advocacy, where he will get the chance to explain to legislators in person that educating the whole student encompasses physical education.
Once he graduates with his Bachelor of Science in Education in spring or December 2023, Woodworth has his eyes on obtaining physical education teaching certification as well as the health certification he’ll need in order to teach on Long Island. Then he’ll look into enrolling in a graduate school in his field.
“I would like a grad assistantship. I would really like to do it at Cortland, honestly. It will either be a physical education or a health education degree.
“And then I’d like to teach in preschool or elementary school,” Woodworth said. “That is where my personality fits in the best.”
He envisions summers directing a non-competitive sport type program for those very same schoolchildren.
“Whether it’s a morning or after school program to an elementary school or even a middle school, I just want to offer a type of elective physical activity to teach them those lifetime skills a little bit early or just give them a taste of it, maybe.”
Woodworth is excited to have found his life’s direction.
“It’s easier to be a non-traditional student in a ton of different ways than to be a traditional student,” he said. “We come with our unique set of challenges. But in terms of priorities, my whole priority is set on school and is exactly where it needs to be. I know I’m meant to be here doing this.”
Approximately 250 non-traditional students are enrolled at SUNY Cortland. The university defines non-traditional students as undergraduate students who are 24 years of age or older or, regardless of age, may have dependent children, be working full-time, have military experience or have made a break in education at some point after high school.
SUNY Cortland acknowledged individuals including Woodworth from Monday, Nov. 15, through Friday, Nov. 19, during its celebration of Non-Traditional Students Week. Stories about outstanding non-traditional students were shared during the week, which also included a host of special activities, both on campus and virtually.