Several times I have mentioned returning to college as a middle-aged grownup person and finally earning a bachelor’s degree. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, I might as well tell you the whole story. I wrote this particular piece for a local-interest magazine (not the one I write for now) in 2005, a few weeks into my very first semester back in the classroom. Rather than start over and rewrite the same story for you, I’ll just post this “field account” telling How It All Began. I hope you enjoy it!
The idea came to me last March, so maybe it was spring fever. My sons were moving on, one to high school and the other to college. They aren’t little kids any more, and while they still need me, they just aren’t as much work. Sharing in our older son’s college plans brought back the excitement I felt when I started down the path of higher education–a path I had abandoned some twenty-five years ago. Then, too, my husband had settled into a great job, after years of industry ups and downs. We no longer needed my part-time income.
I had started college with high hopes right out of high school. A Chemistry major for the first two weeks (don’t ask), I put in four semesters studying Floriculture. With the foresight and diligence of the fabled grasshopper, I took the fun plant science courses and ignored many of the core courses. Finally, faced with Organic Chemistry and monthly rent, I dropped out and worked full-time to support my new husband and myself.
Meanwhile, my brother (the focused one) was piling up degrees, honors and awards the way some of us rake leaves. My sister went to college for just one semester after high school, but went back while she and her husband were raising two daughters. She earned a Bachelor’s degree and is now a CPA. My achievements? A pretty good dinner roll recipe and four unfinished cross-stitch projects.
So the wheels started turning. Working in desktop publishing had piqued my interest in our language and in communicating well. I had often thought that an English composition course would improve my career skills. What if I went ahead and earned a degree? For one thing, it would resolve that nagging “unfinished-work” regret. It would also be a way to repay my parents for all they invested in me. Maybe my younger son could help me with History. (Too bad I didn’t take all the History requirements in the ’70s, when there was less material to learn!) We discussed the idea as a family, and they all assured me of their undying support.
I still have to iron, though.
I drove to the local community college, left my minivan hulking inconspicuously between a couple of sleek sport cars, and threaded my way in past clusters of teenagers. Fortunately, there was a grownup at the front desk. She gave me an application and catalog, and explained that the transcripts I had yellowing in my files were not acceptable for admission. I would have to get official, sealed transcripts from each college I had attended.
Just filling out the application made me feel smarter. Thanks to the Internet, I had no trouble getting phone numbers for my old colleges, even though two of them had since changed names. The Registrar lady at A&M remarked that my transcript would be on microfiche. Frankly, I was relieved it wasn’t on stone tablets.
Next I met with an adviser at UT Arlington. We looked at how my old credit might fit into the English degree plan, an exercise somewhat like playing Yahtzee. To my relief, almost every hour of credit would count. I got all my paperwork in, the community college accepted me, and at last I was ready to select classes. The Fall 2005 schedule listed dates for Regular Registration, Late Registration, Early Registration, and Extra-Early-Anxious-Middle-Aged-Moms Registration.
It seemed wise to ease back into school, so I chose just two courses. Tough jobs first, I decided, and checked my all-time weak subject, Government. I added Economics because it has always interested me; besides, the two seem to go hand in hand. Might as well surround myself with controversy all at once. The great thing about core courses is all the available sections. I found back-to-back classes meeting just two mornings a week.
Now for the toughest hurdle of all: What am I going to wear to class? If you’re a man and are rolling your eyes, stop reading right now and go away. At my age it’s hard to find the right casual clothes. I’m not quite ready for the “retired grandma on a cruise” look; “business casual” is still too dressy; and my worst nightmare is coming off as if I am trying to impersonate a teenager. I finally had a brilliant idea: wear the clothes I’m comfortable in.
The first day of the semester arrived. I didn’t expect a bunch of nineteen-year-olds to be buddies with me, but would they at least accept me as a fellow human? Would anyone even talk to me, or would I be shunned as a hopeless geezer? As I approached my first class I expected to feel the old sense of intimidation and the need for approval I recalled from my past student days. But by the second week, the light began to dawn: I simply didn’t feel that way. Intimidated by a professor? He’s just a person doing his job, like anyone else. In fact, I’m older than he is. And as for needing approval from nineteen-year-old students… why? They’re smart, fun, and full of energy and ideas — in short, they remind me of my kids’ friends. I find myself offering my approval to them. I study hard, treat everyone with respect, joke around some, ask questions freely… and we get along just fine.
If your education has detoured like mine did, let me encourage you to get back on the path with me. Colleges, especially at the community level, have schedules and resources for “non-traditional” students. Financial aid is available if you need it, and just making a small start is a big step. (I will also cut you a deal on a used Government textbook.)
One more thing: no one is staring at your clothes. I wish I had known that when I was nineteen.
What long-dormant dreams are waiting for you to take action?
Thanks for reading!