New Tricks

by Mary Forth

Thousands of older students are returning to school for a variety of reasons: to learn new skills, to polish up old ones, because of job loss, to satisfy requirements for advancement, or just for their own personal satisfaction.  I suppose I would fall into all of those categories.  When my job ended almost 2 years ago, I knew that it was time to start all over.  Time to do what I should have done a long time ago; I needed that college degree to keep up with the rest of the world.

          In an excerpt from an article in The Chronicle Review, Donald R. Read, a college professor at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York said,   “As the baby-boom generation nears retirement, community colleges should prepare for a boom of their own,” says Donald R.

  “As the baby-boom generation nears retirement, community colleges should prepare for a boom of their own. Whether those people return to college to train for new careers or just for the joy of learning new things, ‘they will be the kind of students we love:  motivated, world-wise, clear about why they are in school, learning for pleasure,’”

            It was a bit frightening in the beginning, this decision I had made to turn my world upside down.  Did I have the energy for late night study sessions?  To say that my memory just isn’t what it used to be is quite an understatement. The ideas are there, but it is harder to pry them from my mind.   Am I smart enough to make the grades in college?  I have been out of school for thirty-five years, and it was a much less-complicated time back then.  But I knew I had to try it.  Much to my surprise, there are many students my age doing the same thing that I am doing, and excelling in their studies.  We actually have an advantage over the younger students.  We have real-life experiences that add an edge to our learning.  We have “been there and done that,” and we recognize the true value of education.


Am I motivated?  I can think of nothing more motivating than to work at a job for a number of years that I hated: spending each morning sipping coffee, staring at the minutes ticking away on the clock, dreading that time to go out the door.  Yes, I am motivated:  to change my career, to find new ways of thinking, to explore the world of education once again, and to change my life.

Am I world-wise?  I don’t consider myself to be especially wise in the affairs of the world, but I do have the wisdom that comes from having spent nearly forty years in the workplace, in our ever-changing world of modern technology, as well as the wisdom that comes from living.  I have waited tables, driven a forklift, soldered tubing for air conditioners, and adjusted the tone on a car horn.  I can balance books, enter data from packing slips, find and correct errors in inventory, and set up a shipment to China. I have the ability to make arrangements for a pickup and the skill to process all paperwork needed to be sure that shipments find its destination on time.  Yes, I would say I have wisdom.

Am I clear about why I am back in school?  I certainly am!  I am pursuing a new career.  With the current economy, jobs are not as plentiful as they once were.  The job market is flooded with bright, young adults who have a fresh education.  I must be able to compete with them and am determined to do so.  An added bonus is the sense of accomplishment I will feel when I have achieved my goal of receiving a college degree.

Am I learning for pleasure?  Yes, I believe that I am.  It hasn’t been easy to learn to learn again.  I have to study much longer than I did when I was younger.  I am finding that the “cramming before a test of my youth” just doesn’t get it anymore.  I must set aside time—lots of time—to study.  Just when I think I am getting the hang of this thing called “higher education,” I have to take “Anatomy:  The Structure and Function of the Human Body.”  What a mind-bender that one is!  But, I continue to be surprised by the new ideas that now interest me.  Although I found Anatomy very challenging, I discovered a new respect for the design of the body.  My mother’s Alzheimer’s disease gave the chapter on the brain a personal twist; I now have a new understanding of what was happening to her.  I find learning to be not only pleasant this time around, but I actually crave more.

Two professors summed it up very well in a letter to the editor of The Chronicle Review titled Getting Older Isn’t All Bad when they said, “As we examine our feelings and experiences of midlife more closely, we realize that we feel fuller, more fully in our bodies, than we did in our early teaching selves.  We have persevered in the face of life’s inevitable vicissitudes.  We have the kind of wisdom that comes from understanding and experiencing loss, change, and finitude.”

Perhaps, those middle years of my life are the best time to learn after all. This grandma can return to school and start over in a new career. Yes, I am motivated, world-wise, clear about why I am back in school, and learning for pleasure.  I’ve heard it said that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  Well, this old dog is definitely learning new tricks and actually liking it.

Let me know about your back to school experience. Have you found something later in life that has challenged you to try something new? Comment below.

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