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Old enough to be your classmate's mother?
By Christine Stoddard
The National Center for Education Statistics show that of the 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in the United States, 38% are over 25 and 25% are over 30. The number of college students who are over 25 is projected to jump a whopping 23% by 2019.
So if you’re no spring chicken and you’re looking to nest in the academic coop, stop feeling alone.
When I was an undergraduate Film and Creative Writing major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, I had the pleasure of sharing four courses with a woman named Karen. Karen was 50 years old, my mother’s age. In fact, she was a mother herself. Karen had five children, one of whom was my age exactly. This was Karen’s third attempt at a college degree.
Karen first enrolled in college immediately after graduating from high school, but dropped out to get married. A decade later, she matriculated again, but her Theatre major required so much time on campus after class, that she felt herself neglecting her children. Karen dropped out again and returned to motherhood and the workforce.
Nearly two decades later, when her youngest child graduated from high school, she tried again—and was she ever gung-ho about it. This time, she succeeded. After four years of full-time study, Karen graduated with highest honors in 2011, earning a degree in English and a full scholarship to graduate school. Last Karen and I spoke, she had plans to matriculate in a PhD. program upon finishing her Master’s.
Yes, Karen’s achievements required determination, intellectual curiosity, and grit, but her accomplishments are not beyond the realm of possibility.
Barbara Goldberg, who’s been the Coordinator of the Returning Students Program of the Counseling Center at the University of Maryland-College Park “forever,” has seen woman after woman graduate—despite age, family circumstances, finances, and other obstacles—year after year.
“Returning students are excellent students after they’ve gone through the period of transition,” said Goldberg. “They’re serious in their studies. They’re not sitting around the Student Union and hanging out. In 99% of cases, they’re not looking for a mate. They’re focused. They know what they want. They’re here to learn and, in many cases, striving for a career change.”
What I most admired about Karen was her ability to fully engage with the literature we studied and bring actual life experience and observations to class discussions. She never appeared distracted and regularly made meaningful comments to further the conversation. She devoted herself utterly and thoroughly to whatever text at hand.
Why? She wasn’t fretting over frat rush or carrying the most stylish phone or making it to that weekend’s coolest party. Karen cared about her homework, her research, and her class participation. She cared about learning from the text, the professor, and her classmates.
For further encouragement, consider this: the process of going back to college can manifest itself in many different ways. You don’t have to sit in a classroom on a college campus full-time.
According to the American Council on Education, nontraditional students include students attending community, online, and for-profit colleges, whether they are enrolled in credit or non-credit courses. They also include Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, GED credential holders, and even senior citizens age 55 and older.
Regardless of how and where you decide to finish your college degree, avoid overwhelming yourself. Karen’s full-time approach is not for everyone, especially if you still have young children at home.
“Dip your toe in the water,” Goldberg warns. “Don’t jump in over your head. Take a few courses. I urge adults to take their first semester slowly.”
These are words from a seasoned professional. Goldberg manages 1,400 students over the age of 25 at UMD. They are not the spritely 17 to 23-year-olds of pop culture lore, living in dorms or apartments with roommates. Maybe they started out their college life that way, but perhaps like you, they’ve experienced a break in their education.
For some, obtaining a college degree was delayed because children came into the picture. For others, they dropped out of college to enter the workforce, whether by choice or necessity. Many of them encountered the walks of parenthood and the working world at the same time. If this sounds familiar, keep your chin up.
“Right now I’m counseling a lady whose son is in jail and she works full-time, but she wants to come back,” Goldberg said, “We’re going to help her make that happen for herself.”
No matter their exact personal situation, returning students all deal with some degree of frustration, fear, and confusion.
“When you’re coming back to school, it’s like being in a foreign world,” said Goldberg. “Sometimes you’re by far the oldest person in your class. Sometimes young instructors are intimated by older students. And you can say good-bye to your Sundays because you’ll never have a free one again.”
Goldberg described many of the challenges that returning students, particularly women, face. These may include finding and paying for childcare, juggling classes and homework with a full-time work schedule, commuting far distances to attend class, and, of course, paying their tuition and related academic expenses.
One that last front, help definitely exists. Goldberg’s program awards $35,000 in merit and need-based scholarships every year, assisting 50 to 60 returning students. Goldberg also assists students in applying for Federal, State, and Institutional Financial Aid. She pushes her students to “do a real search” for scholarships, investigating whether their ethnic background, Rotary Club membership, or “anything you can think” of may allow them to qualify for funds.
“The interesting thing is, some of these scholarships people don’t apply for,” Goldberg mused. “Apply for everything.”
Goldberg also recommends filling out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) even if you were declined financial aid in the near or far past.
“Don’t assume. We have so many students whose financial situation has changed.”
But is not all woe-is-me and hard-knocks for the nontraditional crowd. One huge advantage returning students tend to have over their 20-year-old classmates, however, is a sense of direction.
Again, recall what I said about Karen. Her first attempt at college had her studying Journalism. Her second attempt had her studying Theatre. Her third—and most successful—attempt had her studying English, which turned out to be the perfect major for her academic and professional goals.
“My students major in everything across the board,” Goldberg stated. She cited Engineering and Journalism as two especially popular majors, likely because of growing attention paid to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and new media creation.
And for those who may be a little less certain about their course of study, Goldberg helps them assess their interests and strengths in an introductory class required for all returning students. This involves career exploration and testing.
No matter what’s on your mind right now, heed Goldberg’s words of advice:
“Dream. Don’t say you can’t do it.”
Karen dreamt and so should you.