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What I Really Know About Going Back to School

The AARP Bulletin's "What I Really Know" column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Below, readers share what they really know about going back to school.

See also: Learning a new language.

I made the momentous decision to return to the local university to begin work on a Master's Degree in Public Health just before my 50th birthday. Having earned my Bachelor's Degree in Nursing at the age of 31, I was no stranger to the concept of being a non-traditional student. Lots of people my age think I'm crazy and wonder why I could not be satisfied to live out my days until retirement working as a nurse and enjoying my grandchildren. But now, at the midway point in my education, I can see the benefits are so much more than the extra letters I will put behind my name.

It is good to attend classes and walk into the halls of learning. It is satisfying to my soul to hear the bells in the old clock tower at Gunter Hall toll the hour as I take my seat. It was thrilling and a little scary to learn to write my first PowerPoint presentation and share the information I'd gathered with the class. It makes my heart beat a little faster when I have to scramble to meet the deadline for a paper, and it beats even faster when I get a perfect score on that paper. Classroom discussions involve both learning and teaching; the younger people in my classes are teaching me about how they see the world and I am teaching them from my life experience.

As the oldest student in my program, I feel accepted by my instructors and fellow students, and blessed by the opportunity to expand my mind. I have learned so much more than the course objectives say I should glean from my classes. I'm not only making headway toward the achievement of a specific goal; along the way I am becoming a more interesting and informed person.

What I know about going back to school is: it's sure easier now that the kids are grown; student loans are just a big of a hassle as ever and I wish I had saved up for this; the statistics class I just took was incredibly more difficult than the one I had 20 years ago, and; it's never too late and it's certainly never too soon to go back to school.

By Deborah Sample (Weldona, CO)

I’ve lived a full life, marked by a successful career, a great marriage, and considerable worldwide travel. After my husband’s death, I returned to the US from a 10-year sojourn in Africa and involved myself in various volunteer endeavors. However, I began experiencing a distinct lack of satisfaction from my efforts and my once full life seemed bereft of challenge and meaning. The years ahead of me threatened to become an empty, straight and boring highway, devoid of scenery or beckoning off-ramps. Recognizing that I was, indeed, in danger of being literally bored to death, I resolved to attempt the one thing that I had never done – pursue a baccalaureate degree.

Going back to school as a freshman at the age of 68 has given me a new lease on life. I am now nearing my junior year, and am delighted to report that I am still having an almost indecent amount of fun. Older than my professors, I enjoy entering into spirited, friendly debate with them, offering viewpoints gained from my diverse experience that they, and my fellow students, appear to appreciate. I am in love with the entire process of learning in a way that is, unfortunately, denied to many “traditional” students. Some are pursuing their education only because they have no viable alternative if they want successful careers. Financial constraints often add to their necessity to cram so many credits into each semester that they read and absorb only sufficient knowledge to get them through the next assignment, quiz or exam.

By limiting myself to a maximum of three courses (9 or 10 credits) per semester, I am able to absorb all the required reading and explore beyond into that which is merely “suggested.” Educated in England and not having children, I have been able to establish a unique and delightful relationship with my young peers. I am delighted to find that the University of North Carolina at Asheville is striving to achieve the highest possible standards, offering an imaginative curriculum in all courses that bestows interest to even the most unappealing requirements.

Despite my innate dread of exams, tests and quizzes, I am thrilled at being able to maintain what I understand is an enviable G.PA. My goal is to continue my education in the hope of attaining a doctorate before I “croak.” Challenge, enthusiasm, and excitement have returned to my life.

By Avril Dobbelaer (Asheville, NC)

I was 70 years old. It was the turn of the millennium and the computers hadn’t crashed. I was downtown doing errands when, all of a sudden, I turned into the parking lot at Pima Community College and became a freshman. My husband looked at me in disbelief when I arrived home and apologized for being late, saying I had to take my college admissions placement tests.

I awakened the first day of classes to find the road in front of our home under a thick blanket of snow - in Tucson, AZ! Undaunted, I blazed a trail of tire tracks down the street and drove the hour commute to PCC. There was an urgency that hounded me. At my already advanced age, I needed to get my degree before I bellied up. To that end I also enrolled in summer school, taking what are referred to as crunch courses as you complete the full semester’s work in half of the time.

In high school I had been a cheerleader in every sense of the word. My study habits, or lack thereof, made me wonder if I could become a serious student fifty years later. One day I received a letter from the Chancellor. Dear Scholar . . . it began. At first I thought I’d got someone else’s mail. Then I started jumping up and down like a kid. I graduated Dean’s List with high honors and a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the international scholastic order of the two-year college. How about them apples?

Here’s what I really know about going back to school. Think: enrichment. Think: gratification. Think: learning how to look at things in a new way. Education doesn’t get much better than that! P.S. I’m now seventy-five years old and still taking classes.

By Bonnie Lamm (Oro Valley, AZ)

When my supervisor told me that I could not get promoted from my secretarial position unless I got a college degree, I suddenly found myself with a dilemma. Should I go back to school at 49 years of age or should I resign myself to a low paying job for the rest of my life? I chose school. I walked into the college registrar’s office near tears and sobbed, “I need to go back to school, but I’m afraid that I can’t even use a calculator - what do I do?”

First of all, I made a ‘mock college diploma’ and put it on the wall where I could see it everyday. Then I made a promise that it didn’t matter if the house was cluttered, dusty, and unorganized – I was going to finish school!!!

One day near the completion of that diploma I realized that I needed 26 weeks to complete student teaching and I also needed my job. My supervisor agreed that I could do the secretarial job at night and that would leave me time to teach in the daytime. It was tough! I was nearing 50 years old and I had to work two full-time jobs in order to complete my goal. At 7:30 a.m. I arrived at the school with all those excited little voices and stayed within those walls until 4:00 p.m. every day. Then I’d drive across town to the secretarial job and to a completely quiet office. I’d reach into the safe, take out the dictation disks, and start typing. The completed dictation was placed on the supervisor’s desk at about midnight. Sometimes I would drive home in a daze thinking about the teaching assignments I had for the next day. It was a busy 26 weeks.

It was one week before my 50th birthday as I walked across that stage at graduation dressed in a cap and gown and I knew my life was going to change. Teaching called me for the next few years; however, I went on to get an M.A. in Education (while teaching first and third grades) and then an M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy, (while teaching third grade) and then a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (while doing family therapy). Now at 70 years old, I am still training and continuing my education wherever the continuing hours are.

Do I know what it really means to go back to school? You betcha! It means growth, self-esteem, inner strength, loyalty to self, meeting goals, meeting other people, and loving life and what it has to offer each day.

By Barbara A. Linde, Ph.D. (Lakeview, AR)

One of my greatest life regrets was not completing my education. I did earn an Associates in Applied Science through the Community College of the Air Force, but I never had the courses available to me to move on further while in uniform — the Internet was slow to reach our rural North Dakota base, and the local colleges, focused on agriculture and education, didn’t offer the advanced technology courses I needed. So in September 2000, several years after my military retirement, I decided to jump back into the school scene, and registered with the Oregon Institute of Technology.

I won’t tell you it was easy. In fact, juggling full-time work (no one can afford to actually retire on a military retirement pension!), class time, homework, and my volunteer work with the Disabled American Veterans was probably one of the most challenging times in my life. But I soon found that I enjoyed stretching my brain in new areas and operating outside of my comfort zone (sometimes way out!). And I found that my career experience made learning easier, since I’d often already “been there, done that,” and could directly relate what I had experienced to what was being taught.

Best of all, my biggest fear — that I would be the sole ugly old duck in a classroom of young swans! — never materialized. While I was often the oldest person in the room (instructors included!), I was often not the only “retread!” While there were a lot of twenty-somethings in my classes, there was also a large mix of (non-traditional students) who, like myself, were looking to better themselves: blue-collar workers wanting to wear white, single mothers working for a better life for their kids, and not a few older adults like myself, looking to get the degree they always wanted. Surprisingly, the younger ones often gravitated to working with us older ones, respecting both our experience and our desire to better ourselves!

In August 2005, I graduated from OIT with a bachelor’s of science in Information Technology, and I have to say I don’t regret the hectic five-year ride. To you, of whatever age, considering going back to school, I would say “Go For it!” But be prepared to work hard!

By Bruce Young (Oregon)

I left home for college the first time in August 1971. My mother and her friend loaded up our family car, drove me to school in a neighboring state and helped me unload the possessions I couldn’t live without for nine months. Technology consisted of a telephone at the end of the dormitory hall, the bicycle I rode to classes, and the manual Royal typewriter that originally belonged to my grandmother. As happened to many women in my generation, however, love and hormones trumped my educational plans and I dropped out to get married and raise a family.

Over the next 33 years, I took classes off and on and accumulated enough credits to be a junior. In 2005, I enrolled as a full time student again. This time, all of my classes were on the Internet, and I was technologically armed with a high-speed Internet connection, a flat-screen monitor and an ergonomic keyboard. Even though I was apprehensive about being one of the oldest in my classes, the younger students welcomed me as someone who could make unique contributions based on my work and home experiences and as a woman who had lived through many life-changing and historic events.

It was easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing on an online discussion board than to speak in person in a live classroom. Our chats and debates were as lively and interesting as those I remembered from my earlier college days, but these had more depth. There was no time or length limit on our postings, classes didn’t begin or end at a particular time, and we could share even more than we could in a traditional class environment. Research was the most exciting part of college this time because there is so much more information on the Web than one could ever find in a bricks-and-mortar library.

I received my Bachelor of Science degree this spring and have been accepted into graduate school – online, of course. I can’t wait to jump back into cyber-college again and I’m looking forward to more exciting academic challenges. The flexibility of online learning enabled me to attend classes whenever I had time. It energized a new enthusiasm for lifelong learning and, above all, I valued the daily inter-generational contact I had with my classmates. Dude, I know that going back to school is totally sweet!

By Debbie Markel (Powhatan, VA)

I'm back in school after 30-some years. Bob Dylan sang in the sixties, "The times they are a-changin.’" Now, in the year 2007, I think, "Boy, haven't they?" In 1975, I chose my courses from listings in a paper bulletin. I filled out a paper registration form and stood in line to discuss my proposed schedule with my adviser. In 2007, I pick my courses from online listings posted on the university's Web site, accessible only from a computer. I keyboard my choices and press "send." Somehow, this registers me from home without standing on queue or having any sort of human contact.

I suppose universities today are concerned about trees, having gone beyond paper recycling to using little paper at all. In the seventies, I read books and journals that I found on shelves in the library. Now, I read books and journals from my computer screen that were put there by something called Electronic Reserve. In the seventies, I found those books and journals by searching the library's card catalog. Today, I find the library's listings (yes, you guessed it!) online. The wood cabinets bearing the card catalogs are gone, replaced with computers and keyboards.

I remember taking tests on mimeographed paper, which had blue print and a unique scent when freshly run off (hand cranked from a machine). Now, I'm surprised if I'm handed a test on paper at all, or if I am asked to hand in a hard copy of a research paper as opposed to transmitting it electronically to my professor's email. And is chalk endangered as well? My university professors in 1975 used to write our assignments on the blackboard. In 2007, I'm learning to navigate something called WebCT to get my homework, which is posted (right, again!) online.

Beyond the paper issue is the cell phone coup. They have taken over. In 1975, students strolled campus chatting in groups. Today, students stroll campus conversing into their cell phones. What would have been formerly yelled down a dorm corridor is communicated now via cell phone towers. One thing is easier, though, today. I word-process rather than bang away on my Royal typewriter with my bottle of Whiteout handy. And one thing is exactly the same – 30-some years later, I still want to make A’s!

By K.W. Moyer (Florissant, MO)

When my youngest daughter started her senior year in high school, I decided it was time to get that elusive degree. I went back to school at my community college, and it was the best thing I could have done for myself. I was divorced, had three daughters to support, and worked three jobs to keep things going. It took me 13 years to finish my degree by going only at night, but I finally graduated in 2002, at age 56.

I learned that older minds are just as capable of learning as the ones just out of high school. I learned that when you ask questions it helps those in the class that are too timid to ask. I learned that the younger students value your opinion and are willing to help if you are stuck. I got a new perspective on issues we discussed in class because I heard what the younger generation was thinking. It also worked in the opposite direction because they could see my point of view.

And I saw my children learn, through me, how important an education is - I think that may have contributed to all three of my daughters being college graduates.

By Lois Carbo (Knoxville,TN)

In my thirties, my marriage was annulled and I decided I needed more education to be able to support myself. I took classes at night at King's College in Charlotte, and in 1964 I was awarded a diploma for completing the General Business Secretarial Course. I was interested in sitting for the Certified Professional Secretary exam, which at that time was a two-day exam, so I went back to school to take some of the courses I felt I needed to pass. I was awarded the CPS rating in 1980, at the age of 50. Since I was so close to having enough credits for an associate degree in secretarial science, I kept taking classes until I graduated.

Several years ago, my husband and I went back to our community college and took some computer courses. Having a computer at home is quite different from using a computer on the job. On the job there is always someone to load programs or to help out when you don't know what to do next. At home, it's all up to you. The classes were made up of all seniors--some who had never used a computer. I still laugh when I remember the very serious lady who asked the instructor how you get the postage stamps on email letters! A good computer course never hurts anyone. Going back to school is a way to acquire more knowledge, but it also increases a person's self-confidence. It did for me. Plus, it was fun!

By Matilda Batten CPS (Durham, NC)

At age 72, I can still look back and remember the puzzled expression on my husband’s face the day that I mentioned going to college. I was 44 at the time. My friends and family were equally mystified by my desire to further my education. Most everyone said I should be satisfied with having raised four lovely daughters, and that it would be foolish to pass up my newfound freedom.

But afternoon movies and card parties did not suit my personality. After so many years of taking an interest in my children’s homework, I wanted to learn so much m ore on my own. I enjoyed their English assignments, especially when it meant reading the poems of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I often fell asleep at night thinking of their beautiful poetry. After a great deal of thought, I decided to enroll in college.

Because I had always loved art, I chose as many art courses as possible. My appreciation for painting and sculpture heightened until it became my main interest, which led me to enroll in the museum studies program. In addition to a heavy dose of art history, it required doing an internship at a museum. Luckily, I was able to connect with a small history museum near my home. There were times I head to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming. It seemed hart to believe that I had progressed from being a stay-at-home mom to working as a museum docent. The museum’s director offered me a part-time job as a paid employee, and I accepted.

Later on, various health issues forced me to cut down on my schedule. But I never lost sight of my goal. It took 11 years for me to graduate from college, but when I eventually earned my BA degree, summa cum laude, I understood the full meaning of “better late than never.”

By Marlene Klotz (Boca Raton, FL)

I started back to school at 41, taking one class at a time while still raising kids. Ten years later I finished nursing school, with a BSN, RN. Here’s some of what I learned: Most of my peers (and even some instructors) were younger than me, but all had something to offer. Do not dismiss someone because of age, any age. They do an honorable thing.

Sit in front if at all possible; it helps the teacher get to know you and helps you to see, hear, and take notes better. It also lessens distractions. Fall in love with the material you’re learning; I did with biology. It also helps when your instructor loves the material—it’s infectious. Get to know, and be known, by those who can really help you work the system---a Dean, career counselor, that friendly English Lit instructor who can edit your scholarship applications, etc.

If possible, get involved on campus in some club or student government. Those extra connections will expand your education and friendships, and you might even make a positive difference. Appreciate your life experience; it provides roots on which to bind your new knowledge – take advantage of that. As a nurse, my greatest skill base came from mothering—feeling a fever, reading non-verbal cues, acting when it’s time to do something. My schooling just added to that root-knowledge.

By Monica Stutzman, BSN, RN (Hillsboro, OR)

When you’re in a job that induces insomnia and hair loss, do you think those are signs of the need for a change? For several years I felt that I really needed to do something else, but fear and "what ifs" held me back from taking any steps. Once I realized I was letting the awful job I went to every day affect my life and my daughter’s, however, I began looking around for another career.

I thought about radiography or becoming a medical assistant. I knew I could make a much higher salary in those fields but wasn’t thrilled about taking either course of study. One day I was in my garden, transplanting some seedlings I had started and mulling over my options, pondering "What to do, what to do?" Then I looked down and had a "duh" moment. I’ve always loved gardening! That day I contacted the local community college and started the process of getting admitted into the two-year Landscape Gardening Program, at the advanced age of 48.

It was a wonderful, stimulating and sweaty two years. I was in a class with about 15 other students, all of whom were at least 25 years younger than me. We learned to identify 100 different plants, grow poinsettias and mums, use landscaping equipment, design and plant the landscapes for Habitat houses, and muck about in the water garden. I could have stayed in school forever.

Graduation came too soon, and I marched down the aisle in 2006 to receive my diploma wearing a Phi Theta Kappa sash and honors cord. I couldn’t believe it was over and now I had to go back to being an "adult."

One of my fellow students said to me one day, "I wish I had your determination." Well, I believe that if you figure out how to do what you love, the determination will follow. I cut my salary in half for two years, shopped at the used clothing store, had to pay for health insurance all by myself (yikes!), counted every single penny, had unfailing support from my daughter, Sarah, and never doubted for a moment that I had made the right decision. Now I work for a wonderful, just-getting-started botanical garden in Kernersville, North Carolina. What could be better than that?

By Nancy E. Fauser (Kernersville, NC)

I returned to college when my three kids were teenagers. My husband thought I was ridiculous for caring whether I had a degree. I was “smart enough without a degree,” he said, and he wasn’t happy turning the household upside down so I could go to college. But I was determined. No one in my family had ever graduated from college, so I challenged myself to be the first.

I had been a serious stay-at-home mom. I baked all our own bread, decorated birthday cakes, lavishly celebrated holidays, attended school functions, cleaned, shopped, cooked and entertained. I even held “end of the school year” parties each year and bought gifts for the kids to use during their summer break. My family was very spoiled by all my care and attention.

Then I started college – four courses every semester – and, even though I tried very hard, I couldn’t keep up at home. By the second semester, I found myself yelling at the dinner table, “By God, I am going to go to school and I’m going to graduate at the top of my class and you can just get used to it. Furthermore, everyone is going to pitch in and help. This is not my house, it’s our house, and from now on everyone is responsible!”

I divided the housekeeping tasks. Each kid cooked one day a week. My husband cooked twice and did the grocery shopping, and I cooked the two remaining days. Each person cleaned their own bedroom plus one other room in the house. Laundry duty rotated, and everyone did their own ironing. We maintained this schedule for three and a half years. And I graduated magna cum laude.

By Peg Stone (Lenox, MA)

This is what I really know about going back to school: nobody flicks you with spit wads anymore. Nobody flirts with you, either.

The kids let you have the best seat. You struggle longer with the homework load, but get more answers right. You ruin the grade curve for everyone else by snatching the highest grade on the final. But the kids don't mind--they keenly enjoy your disagreements with the professor; likewise when you correct his algebra mistakes on the board! And they giggle when it's YOUR cell phone that disrupts the lecture.

You see timid ones get braver watching your example--speaking out more, asking more questions. Nobody cares that you're a geek: you get respect. Sometimes what you say is out to lunch, but nobody jumps on you, not even the professor (who is young enough to be your son). He appreciates the salt you flavor his day with, and the way you keep him on his toes. He wishes he had more "nontraditional students" in his classes. You fear nothing anymore. You know why you're taking the class. School was never so enjoyable as now.

By Barbara Szabo

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