Middle-Aged College Student – Or A New Way to Embarrass Your Children!

A friend asked me yesterday to give his mom some advice about going back to school. Now keep in mind, I’m middle-aged and his mom is too so were talking about us “old folks” going to school.  A lot of people don’t get that. They just don’t see the point, especially if you don’t have a very specific career goal in mind.  I, however, was all over this. Poor woman, I really hope I didn’t scare her off with my numerous Facebook messages with websites, phone numbers and advice!

Going back to school just happens to be one of those things I could talk at length about. Don’t panic, I’ll try not to be more wordy than usual. You see, I didn’t go to college right after high school either. Instead, I got married and raised a family. College was always an unfulfilled dream. I knew I wanted to do it someday but figuring out when and how to afford it was overwhelming.

Then, when my kids were older, I got a part-time job at The Learning Center. If you aren’t familiar with it, The Learning Center is part of Bangor Adult and Community Education. I worked there for almost a decade. Without a doubt it was my most personally satisfying job. I learned many, very practical work skills through that experience. However, even more importantly, I learned so much about people.

In addition to maintaining a database for federal grant reporting, my job was “intake and assessment.” There were two of us in the front office and between us we interviewed and tested hundreds of adults each year. We were the first people they encountered when they walked in. We were the first people they told their stories to. We administered diagnostic testing and then sent them on, depending on their needs, to take their GEDs, to sign up for high school classes, to get tutoring in reading or math, or to meet with a college counselor.

To say this was a humbling experience would be an understatement. We had folks from every walk of life. We had people who just wanted to go back to school for personal fulfillment. We had lots and lots of people who were laid off from jobs in the mills and needed to re-train. We had people who had not finished high school, for any number of reasons, who now wanted to complete this long put off goal. We had unwed mothers, folks on probation, people with learning disabilities, people with mental illness, folks with substance abuse issues and kids from Job Corps. What amazed me more than anything, were the number of people who had gone as far as high school but who still had the reading level of someone in sixth grade, not because they weren’t capable but because someone at some point had just given up on them. Many were people for whom life had been unfair, unnecessarily hard and sometimes down-right cruel. Yet, every single one of them had found the courage to walk through that door and give it another shot.

As I watched so many of these students succeed, as I watched them overcome hardships I had been lucky enough never to encounter, it began to dawn on me that this was certainly doable for me as well. So, in 1998, I signed up for my first college class. I had no goal in mind other than to try something new.Thinking long term, planning for a four year degree was just too overwhelming, so I didn’t. I took one class that semester and I loved it so much that I took another one the next semester, and another one after that. In fact, as long as I could scrape together the money, I took a class almost every semester for eleven years. At one point, my oldest son and I were taking classes at the same campus. He was slightly mortified at the idea but I think it grew on him eventually.

In 2009, I graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Liberal Studies with a Concentration in Women’s Studies, from UMA Bangor. I was 43. I was the first person in my family to earn a college degree. (A week later, my oldest daughter graduated from the University of Rhode Island)! When people asked what my degree had gotten me, how it was going to change my life or my career, I always had the same answer. This degree brought immeasurable joy! While it can be argued that the skills I learned would at some point help me in my career that was not why I had done it. I had done it because I had always wanted to. I had done it to prove to myself that I could do it! I had done it for the simple joy of it.

Is this the end of that story? Of course it isn’t. You see, since then I’ve gotten a job at The University of Maine, where I can take classes for free. So what am I doing now? Well, I am now working towards a Bachelors of University Studies with a Minor in English. I am also at the same campus as my youngest child! She is not at all embarrassed as it turns out I’m always conveniently available for rides and cash! With a little luck I should be done when I am 49. Why am I doing this? Because I love every minute of it!

We are so fortunate to live in an area where education is valued, available and affordable. Not only do we have two traditional four year universities but we have multiple colleges and programs designed for those who may be going back as older adults, or who have to combine school with a job and a family. In addition to the links above, check out Eastern Maine Community College and Beal College. Both schools have great programs for non-traditional students.

If it all seems a little confusing call my friend Marty Kelley at Maine Educational Opportunity Center. She will not only walk you through the paperwork but she may be able to get you a scholarship for a free class to help you get started.

Take a couple classes, earn your first degree, earn an advanced degree or learn new skills to start a whole new career! There is no reason not to. Still not sure? Drop me a line and we’ll chat some more. Remember, being middle-aged is never an excuse for not going after your dreams! As for my friend’s mom, I’d be willing to bet you’ll find her sitting next you in a class some day very soon.

For more on my personal story, visit this 2009 story on YouTube. 

Karen Foley

About Karen Foley

Karen Foley, has successfully been writing her blog for the BDN since May 2011. By successful, she means a few people read it, and she has not been sued, stalked or fired since starting it.