Both my sister and I returned to college as older students. My kid sister, who is now a 50-year- old kid is currently completing her degree, holding down a job and raising two teenagers alone. I returned to college too, but I was 30. Compared to my sister, I was pretty young. But keep in mind, this was 26 years ago and back then, 30 year olds were adults with families. I was an adult 30 year old, newly divorced, raising a toddler, and piecing together an income. Today, a 30 year old might still be living in his or her childhood bedroom in mama’s house, working a minimum wage job for fun money, and spending free time playing computer games.
Thirty or 50, returning to school has challenges, and some advantages. Here are a few:
- Prepare to be in a finance warp with many of your fellow students. Yes, the economy is still sputtering, but a lot of young students are in school financed at least in part by their parents. I well remember going to the college bookstore and digging through stacks of used books, looking for some that were in decent shape, hoping to save enough to pay my electric bill. That was before today’s alternatives, like Amazon.com.
As I searched, two teenage girls walked by with armloads of still-in-the-wrapper brand-new textbooks. One glanced my way and said loudly, “I would never buy a used textbook!” She said it with a grimace, the same way I might say, for example… “I’d never use a pooper-scoop as a fork.”
Then Miss I-Only-Buy-Brand-New presented Daddy’s Visa Gold card to pay the bill. I couldn’t help but think that Daddy might wish she would lower herself to buy a used book or two. I wonder how different her attitude might have been if Daddy had said, “Here’s $300. Whatever is left after you buy your books is yours to spend on shoes.” I’m thinking she would’ve been right down there in the used book stacks with me.
- Prepare to be mistaken for a teacher or a parent. My sister couldn’t figure out why, from time to time, her fellow students turn to her helplessly and say something like, “I don’t know what to do! How do I do this?” She can practically hear them cry “Mama!”
In other words, just as they lean on their parents for answers (whether they realize it or not), they lean on a friendly, approachable Mom-like figure like my sister.
Other times when she’s in the halls or the library, students ask her questions about the campus or the curriculum, the same questions that she herself wants to ask someone. Why are they asking me? She used to wonder, till she realized, they were mistaking her for a teacher. This is true even though there are many older students on campus. They look at her and think she couldn’t possibly be one of them.
- Prepare to be left behind in terms of technology, even if you’re pretty savvy. When I went back to college, personal computers were pretty new. I typed my term papers on an electric typewriter, painstakingly whiting out errors. Meanwhile my fellow students who had every advantage their parents could provide turned in beautiful, computer-created reports complete with graphics. My sister is going through the same thing, in a much different way. She, of course, has a computer, but isn’t obsessed with constant electronic communication during class and during every other moment of her life. Whatever her question, there may be an app for that, but she doesn’t know about it.
- Prepare for a time warp. We all know that time goes faster as we get older. Here’s one area where you may have a real advantage over your younger fellow students. My sister and I both noticed how, when assignments were given with a deadline, for example two weeks out, we got on it right away, as in “I only have two weeks.” The younger students said “Why would I mess with this now? I’ve got two whole weeks! Let’s play Frisbee.” In the same way, when each 18- week semester would begin the young students seemed to think it was an eternity, stretching ahead for miles, so why rush to learn the material? We older students got on top of material quickly, realizing how fast 18 weeks zip by.
- Prepare to view life through a whole different perspective. To get my degree, I juggled parenthood, meeting the bills, and school. Finding study time meant reading thick textbooks with “Sesame Street” blaring in the background and taping study cards over the sink while I washed dishes or even on the bathtub wall while I tried to relax. My fellow students juggled classwork with Frisbee time on the campus lawn, and keggers. My sister, who is a school bus driver, struggles to stay awake in her anatomy class because she has to be at work at 6:30 in the morning. Her fellow students fall asleep in class because they played computer games all night or closed down the bar with their friends.
Of course this doesn’t represent all college students in my day or in my sister’s. We all know some who are committed to their school work and paying their own way, eating mostly ramen noodles and squeezing every dime. Ideally you can share the wisdom you’ve gained in life experience and they can teach you a few new technology tricks. Every generation has a lot to offer and a lot to gain by keeping open minds.
If an occasional student mistakes you for a teacher or leans on you like a parent, just smile and take it as a compliment to your superior wisdom and life experience.
Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.