Remember the good old days when the father would rise to go to work, the mother would wake the children, dress them for school, cook breakfast and whisk them off with a shiny apple and a bouquet of flowers for the new teacher? Sound familiar?
Remember the good old days when the father would rise to go to work, the mother would wake the children, dress them for school, cook breakfast and whisk them off with a shiny apple and a bouquet of flowers for the new teacher? Sound familiar? It was the early fall routine that American families embraced and grew to love, the rosy portraits of home life conveyed by so many of the Norman Rockwell calendars over the month of September. But if Rockwell were alive today, he would be painting a different picture, perhaps of a mother with a furrowed brow reading Henry David Thoreau while standing over a hot stove. As more employers have begun demanding higher qualifications, more adults have started hitting the books. And parents aren’t the only ones realizing the value of better schooling. Retired adults with master’s degrees are forfeiting leisurely afternoons at home for the sheer joy of learning. But whether for the sake of employment or pleasure, higher education is benefiting the lives of more adults every year.
Balancing Work and Play
School can be challenging for a wife and working mother of two teaching four college classes while pursuing her doctorate. Dr. Debra Burgauer, an English professor at Bradley University who received her doctorate in December 2004, says juggling school, teaching and family life was difficult, but not impossible. “I was a nontraditional Ph.D. student with two kids, two dogs, a husband and a station wagon that broke down half the time,” she says. “I had to learn the balancing act of grading student exams, taking my kids to soccer practice and then attending classes in the evening.”
Other adult students choose to take classes during the day. According to Pat Campbell, an administrative assistant at Bradley who returned to school for her Bachelor of Science degree, taking day classes requires working different hours full time. “Sometimes I don’t take a lunch break, or I may come in early to work so I can take a late-afternoon class.”
Because the majority of adults returning to class are also working and raising families, informing professors of your other responsibilities can greatly ease the transition into student life. “I had a professor who gave us our assignments almost on a day-by-day basis,” says Dr. Burgauer. “However, when I informed him that I was also teaching several college classes, he gave me my assignments four weeks in advance so I could plan my schedule around my classes.”
Aside from learning to balance a busy life, adults must also learn to fit in among students of a different generation. Pat Campbell is familiar with the uneasiness that sometimes accompanies adults taking college courses. “I’m always glad each semester when the first day of class is over,” she says. “Most of the time, you are the only non-traditional student in a class, and students sometimes think that you are the instructor. Adjustment can be difficult because you don’t have the same support as younger students—the backing of friends and acquaintances.”
Despite possible first-day jitters, however, in-class discussion and collaboration on group projects helps adults and younger students get to know one another and form friendships. Betty Bonn, a senior at Bradley who returned to school as an individualized major, says she feels very comfortable among younger Bradley students. “The younger students just act like I’m one of them,” she says. “It’s such a joy talking with the kids.” Says Campbell, “Over time, I began to feel very accepted. Getting to know the kids has been a wonderful experience, and I’ve kept in touch with some of them.”
Making Friends with the Internet
Aside from learning to make friends with classmates, adults who are not computer-savvy may also need to make friends with the Internet. In an age when professors are more inclined to post assignments online and assign projects which require web surfing, Internet knowledge is priceless. However, students with only basic computer knowledge shouldn’t allow this obstacle to deter them from further education.
“I was gone from Bradley for about ten years, and students were then typing papers with typewriters,” says Betty Bonn. “When I returned to school, I had a professor who posted assignments on the web and a paper that required Internet research with an online card catalog. Fortunately, my professor and others at Bradley were super-helpful!” Although technology doesn’t always come naturally to older students, with the help of teachers and librarians, it becomes both easy to access and easy to learn. Most colleges also offer introductory computer courses for senior citizens to help elderly students adjust to the changing technology.
Knowledge of online resources can be especially helpful for returning students when it comes to making the grade. College professors are cracking down on students whose mistakes on papers could easily be avoided. “I think our tolerance of errors has definitely changed,” says Dr. Burgauer. “These days, because of the Internet, students have research at their fingertips, so we are extremely disappointed with poorly researched papers.”
In addition to the grading system, college professors feel that there is now more material to cover in class. In courses such as American literature, there is now more material experts consider good literature, and, therefore, professors require students to know more when they graduate. “One of the most important things to remember is to pace yourself,” says Bonn. “Whereas younger students can cram until 4:00 a.m. for an exam, we older students may need to study at regular intervals throughout the course.”
Parents and elderly students pursuing degrees may be faced with challenges from both inside and outside the classroom, but what about retirees with degrees who return to college for the sheer pleasure of learning? One Bradley student, who had retired from his position as CEO at Caterpillar, enrolled in two liberal arts courses. “I am now taking the classes I walked past as an engineering major in college,” he said. “I’m taking music, literature and poetry—and enjoying every minute of it!”
The Age Advantage
Aside from taking extra classes for enjoyment, returning to school at a later age has other advantages for students. Dr. Burgauer believes that adults in their forties, fifties or sixties possess a clear sense of purpose that some students in their late teens and early twenties seem to lack. “Older students aren’t just going through the motions or going to college because they don’t want to do anything else,” she says. “They are here because they want to be and they know what they want to do.”
Having a clear sense of purpose causes returning students to be strongly motivated and, on average, to perform better academically than younger students. “As a returning student, you really appreciate your education, and you don’t take it for granted,” says Bonn. In addition, the experience older students have gained from working in the world and, in some cases, from raising a family, has helped them learn to prioritize and make good choices. “Life experiences are incredibly important to the development of a person,” says Campbell. “When I went back to college, I enrolled in a 300-level chemistry class and did wonderfully. I learned from age how to prioritize my time.”
Seven Tips For Success
Returning to school is a huge step, but whether or not you decide to become a student again should never be influenced by the fear of failure or inadequacy. The following are some tips for returning students to help them find success in the classroom.
- Don’t hesitate. Be brave! You always know more than you think, and you’ll be surprised by how well you do.
- Strive for an “A,” but be content with a “B.” Being older doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Have fun learning, and enjoy your experience!
- Know why you are going back to school, whether for a better salary, personal enjoyment or a better self-image.
- Let your professors know your prerogatives. They’re happy to help when they know your needs!
- Set goals and make priorities. Seek your family’s support.
- Carve out your own niche. Have a place where you can be by yourself to study.
- Remember, if you love to learn, you will undoubtedly succeed!
If you’re considering returning to school, be encouraged. Education is invaluable, and the longer you live, the more directions your life will take. So what are you waiting for? Go for it! TPW