The Advantages of Being an Older Student
By Vickey Kalambakal
When I walked by the other students on my first day of college, I was painfully aware that most of them were half my age. They barely looked at me-probably thinking that I was a teacher, or a clerk-anything but a fellow student. I was literally shaking as I entered my classroom. How could I hope to keep up? What was I thinking of, enrolling in school in my 40s? I was 20 years out of date and out of practice.
Now that I am about to get my BA from UCLA, there are still times when I wonder what on earth I'm doing here. But in the past few years I have learned that older students have incredible advantages over younger ones. For example, if you've been working for a few years, your employer may help you with your education, both with financial reimbursements and flexible schedules.
If it's a lack of self-confidence that holds you back, however, consider what I said earlier: you, as an older student, have incredible advantages over the other students. Here's a partial list:
You can focus. You may be worried about keeping up with the rigors of school, and competing with all those energetic kids-but remember that they are often living away from home, and away from parental guidance, for the first time in their lives. Freedom is a heady and distracting experience, but you went through all that years ago. Now, your attention span is probably longer; your ability to concentrate greater.
- You've got a head start. Many of the younger students remember only one president. They've only been reading for a few years; maybe they've never seen live theatre. Their experiences are limited. You've got a 20-year running start on general, cultural knowledge, and a sense of perspective that they will not achieve until they…well, until they're your age.
A new career is as promising to you as it is to a 20-year-old. You may not be getting any younger, but you can count on getting a lot older. People are living longer. There will be more time to be filled for us-more productive years, hopefully, but also more of a drain on our retirement funds. A college education can facilitate a second, more fulfilling career. The extra years will be more fun for you because your education will pay off, financially and spiritually.
- You know what you want (Part 1). You've been out in the big bad world. You've held jobs and paid bills. You know what opportunities are out there, and what success costs. You know more than any 18-year-old could about the advantages of an education, and you can put that knowledge to work for you. Your choices will be more informed, and your work more directed.
Negative experiences can benefit you. Older students often know what it means to make less than they're worth. Being laid off, or passed over for promotion, can be tremendously motivating. Sacrificing your needs for children or older parents can also clarify your own goals. When you are finally able to go after your own desires, you may find that all those experiences have built up reserves of strength and determination you never knew you had.
You know what you want (Part 2). Studies have shown that for the 18-24 year old group, the encouragement of parents is a major factor of success in college. If Mom and Dad think college is important, their children probably will too. But my own survey of 25 adult students returning to college after age 35 reflected a different outlook. As we grow older, our parents' feelings about college no longer influence us. If you're considering college now, it's because you are interested-not your parents. You don't have to live up to anyone else's expectations anymore. You can pick the career and future that you want.
You can handle (and cut through) the red tape. Younger students are used to others telling them where to go and what to do. You are more used to solving your own problems, and this can be an asset. In spite of the rising number of non-traditional students, the counseling and administrative services of most colleges are set up to assist the teenager. Chances are that you will have to find your own answers to questions-and you are qualified to do so. In fact, as a more experienced person, you are probably used to getting the big picture and figuring out the most expedient path to action. Use this talent in college to get the right information from the right source-you'll be miles ahead of the other students.
Money has not been mentioned yet, but it's important; in fact, it's often the first reason given when non-traditional students are asked why they want to go back to school. One of the people who convinced me to return to school was an aerospace engineer in his early 60's. He recalls that when he made the decision to return to school, he was working full time in a laboratory, supporting a wife and two daughters. After he earned his degree, he continued to work in the same laboratory, doing the same work. "Only, once I graduated," he grins, "I was getting paid twice as much!"
Money is not the only reason to return to school, but it helps to know that when you are finished with school, you will almost certainly be worth more to employers.
More important is what you'll be worth to yourself. Once you actually go back to school, your self-esteem-which seems so fragile on that first, scary day-will soar. Your own children, your friends, your co-workers, and your classmates, may well be in awe of your drive and determination. I have had classmates tell me that they wished their Moms were like me, and I am thrilled and flattered by those words.
That first day of school was terrifying-but laughable. When I finally did walk into my class, I found that half the students were my own age, or older. Every class since has left me that much closer to my goal, and that much happier over my decision. I cannot even imagine my life without the challenges and triumphs of college.
If you are straddling the fence, hop off. The opportunities to grow are incredible. As Goëthe said, "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and imagination in it. Begin it now!"
Vickey is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles, California. She writes for both academic and commercial markets, has contributed to several books, and has a 31 year old daughter.