5 Notes about Being an Old(er) Student

Just as, over three decades ago, I entered college with fear and trembling, I did the same when I decided to go back to continue my education. When I graduated with my BA in 1980, I swore I would never go back to school. I am a perfectionist and I put myself under so much pressure. When I got out, I couldn’t wait to just have a normal life. And, to be honest, an advanced degree probably would not have made a whole lot of difference on the path I chose since experience has been my trump card.

However, when I decided three years ago that I wanted to teach at the college level, the doors were closed without an MA. And so, I once again entered the academic setting as a student with classmates as old as my children. Here are my words of advice to you if you’re middle-aged (or older) and considering going back to school. gray hairs

(1) Scope out all the options.

Depending, of course, on what you’re studying and what degree you’re pursuing, there are technical programs, low-residency programs, online programs, and traditional on-campus programs (full and part time). Online may be right for you given your job and other life circumstances. Low-residency means that most of the coursework is done online and then you travel to the school for an intensive class time. Schools are different–it might be two weeks twice a year or four weeks in the summer, etc. The point is, as you consider continued schooling, think about how you might work best.

If you’re near a campus that has a terrific on-campus program, don’t be afraid to try it because you’re “too old.” Yes, it’s a little scary but the amazing folks I have met, the new friendships I’ve made, and the new connections I’ve forged have made it all worthwhile. (And I’m an introvert!)

By the way, if you do this, you’re called a “non-traditional” student.

(2) Know your reasons and be ready to commit.

In this economy, many folks are heading back to school to get that extra edge they hope will help them get a job. You have to carefully weigh the cost of school versus what the outcome may be. It’s an expensive endeavor and should be entered into wisely. You can get loans if you go at least half time (most places). One good thing about being our age and heading back to school is that we often do have a pretty specific picture of who we are with a lot of years and experience under our belts. I had a specific goal in mind when I started and a reason to be there. That helped me keep going when the going got tough.

And you have to think about being a student–it’s a different mindset. This article (and the accompanying links) has tips for remembering how to be a student when you’re older. At least, at this point, you probably know that pulling an all-nighter is not a good idea . . .

Getting through any program will take some time. Are you ready to commit to one, two, three years? Are you prepared to plod through a class at a time? Can you set aside several hours a week to study and do homework? If you decide to do an online program, are you self-disciplined enough to stay with it?

(3) Let your life experience work for you.

Chances are you’re contemplating a particular program because you want to finish something you started or because, over the course of your lifetime, you’ve discovered a gift or desire that you never saw before and you want to see where the study can take you. You’ll be in classes with younger people who are still trying to figure out what life holds for them. You’ve been there. In one sense, you’re still in the process of discovery by going back to school, but in another sense you’re bringing loads of life experiences to inform your studies. No one is a blank slate, but your slate is probably really full. Don’t apologize for that. Embrace it. This article discusses some of the advantages you have as an older student–and they’re good ones.

My friend, L. Marie, writer and blogger, went back for her MFA later in life. She says, “I was a little intimidated at the thought of returning to grad school after so many years. But at Vermont College, I didn’t have to feel that way. In my program, Writing for Children and Young Adults, there were many students my age and even older. I love that!”

(4) Get to know your professors.

I said this in last week’s post for young students, but it’s no less true for you. Many of those professors may be younger than you, but place yourself in their classroom as a sponge ready to soak up whatever you can. I find that I am so ready to learn because going back to school is a very intentional choice for me and I want to get everything out of it that I can. You’ll find that as well.

(5) Get to know your classmates.

No, you probably won’t hang out together, but do your best to make them comfortable with you and you’ll be more comfortable with them. No, you’re not a kid anymore, but learn what you can from this next generation. To me it’s fascinating to be in a classroom with students who have always had computers and who have worldviews shaped by the fact that they can access so much information at any moment.

Besides, they help me figure out my Twitter account . . .