AMHERST — “Why are you so old, in school?”
I was asked this question recently by a genuinely curious, if not tactful, classmate. I am 37 years old and, in May, I will finally graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism.
It has been a long road.
Going back to school when you’re an adult is a vastly different experience than when you’re a fresh-faced 18-year-old, with idealized plans of how life will be. Life often takes unexpected turns. Sometimes the path you end up on is far from the one you were sure you would take.
I, too, had those plans after I had graduated high school and enrolled in college in September 2000. I would get my degree and become an English teacher, allowing me to write the Great American Novel in my free time. I thought it was a good balance of my writing passion and paying the bills — ideal.
At the beginning of my third semester of school, however, I developed severe sleep apnea, a medical condition which caused chronic sleep deprivation and exhaustion. To preserve what was left of my GPA, I withdrew. I figured I would go back the next semester after taking care of my medical problems. Life, however, got in the way.
Before I knew it, I was working full-time, paying rent, and taking on normal adult responsibilities. Throughout my twenties, I played with the idea of going back to school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, though, so I dabbled. I attended a massage therapy school open-house, I sent away for information packets on photography courses, and I browsed college websites. But every time I thought about going back to school, I told myself I could never afford it and wouldn’t have time to work as well.
After several years, I realized life was passing me by. My friends were well into their careers and I was still working a dead-end, low-paying retail job. I had to make a change. On my 30th birthday, I sat down with a friend and wrote out a list of things I wanted to accomplish. At the top of that list was, “Go back to school.”
I am certainly not alone. According to the 2016-2017 UMass At a Glance datasheet, 4.6 percent of the undergraduate student body are over the age of 30, and many of them are enrolled in the University Without Walls program. Online programs, like UWW, are often an educational lifeline for adults who would otherwise not be able to balance the time constraints of work, children and school.
Online schooling, though, is generally just classes without the enriching experiences that college offers. There is no time for Minutemen Football games with friends when you’re shuttling your kids to soccer, no chance to join the debate club or enjoy a comedy night when you’re doing homework at the kitchen table after working all day.
Even for those students, such as myself, who do attend classes on campus, the “college experience” is just not the same. I consistently find myself disappointed that I can’t see a guest speaker because I have to work full-time, or attend an event because I have to get the car back home so I can pick up my boyfriend from his job. Even the vague confusion you feel when students give each other knowing nods about living in Southwest or the shenanigans of traditions like Blarney leave you feeling out of the loop and detached from college culture. While it isn’t that you would necessarily want to take part in all those experiences, not having the opportunity leaves you feeling a little left behind.
Despite the disconnect, it’s not all bad being an adult student. I find that I am a much more serious student than I was the first time around. Back then, I would blow off a class or just skip my homework to go out with friends. Now, I appreciate and understand the value of my education, both financially and to my future. I can also relate things learned in class to life experiences I wouldn’t have had 15 years ago.
The path that each person takes in life is individual and uniquely challenging. Many may attend college right out of high school, graduate in four years, and head into their careers or advanced degrees. In others experiences, there are twists and detours along that road that you just can’t predict. Those detours, with all their bumps and false starts, make up a part of who you are as a person.
For me, living in “the real world” has given me a work ethic that I have taken into school and will follow me into my career. When I walk across the stage this May and pass into a new phase of my life, the journey will have been worth it.
Email Sarah at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @sarahanna824.