Over one-half of the students in America's colleges, universities, and trade schools are non-traditional students, students who did not enter immediately after graduation from high school.
If age can limit our opportunities, education can expand them.
And while lack of confidence may keep us from going back to school in the first place, the experience itself is a confidence booster.
Back to School
Note: This column first appeared in August 1996.
At midlife, most people see their kids leave home to attend college. In my case, I went with them, not as a parent, but as a fellow student. This month I complete my third year of graduate school, an activity born in desperation--one has to do something when a career ends--but a plan of action proving to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.
I'm not alone. Over one-half of the students in America's colleges, universities, and trade schools are non-traditional students, students who did not enter immediately after graduation from high school. And an increasing number of them are midlifers. In my case, I share classes everyday with 40 and 50 year-olds, and have had classmates in their 60s.
There are many reasons why additional schooling is a good idea in midlife. Following are some of the ones I am experiencing.
Traditionally, midlife is a time when career opportunities decline. There are many reasons for this: physical tasks that demand younger bodies, changing technology and outdated training, corporate downsizing, age discrimination. Yet education can reverse the trend. If age can limit our opportunities, education can expand them.
The most exciting part about approaching the end of my schooling is beginning to consider all the career options now open to me. It's like being 20 all over again. One doesn't have to be young to gain new hope for the future.
Another plus of going back to school is the thrill of discovery, one more pleasure we associate with the young. Each semester I not only uncover new truths, but new insights on old ones. The emotional payoff is like seeing mountains for the first time, and the practical value is like learning to drive a car. It is opening up whole new worlds for me. I can't believe what I've been missing.
Of course not everyone should or can go back to school, but not because they lack the ability. When I talk to other midlifers about my journey and suggest that they could do the same, they often respond with self-doubt. "I didn't do all that well in school 30 years ago," they say, "and now my mind isn't as sharp as it was then. I'll never be able to compete with those kids."
These words are as untrue as they are typical. Ask any 19-year-old college freshman. They will tell you that what returning students lack in memory skills and recent academic practice, they more than make up in life experience and hard work. They are the curve-breakers, the teachers' pets. Traditional students don't want to compete with them.
And while lack of confidence may keep us from going back to school in the first place, the experience itself is a confidence booster. In my case, a technophobic person, who always had his children program VCRs and set electronic clocks for him, is actually using a computer and navigating the World Wide Web.
My final point is a corollary to the first three. If you had told me three years ago that I would spend 12-hour-days studying and teaching, and actually enjoying the process, I would accuse you of watching too many Energizer bunny commercials. But the reality is that new opportunities, discoveries, and confidence can recharge our midlife batteries. But don't take my word for it. Sign up for a night class and give it a try.
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