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Returning to School After 50

adult student studying with computer and book

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There are many reasons for my decision to attend college. However, returning to school after 50 presents a few unique challenges. In the beginning, the primary reasons were growth in career opportunities and a love of learning. The biggest surprise is that the more I learned, the more reasons I found to continue my education. Using what I learn to instill a love of learning in others is now high on the list too. Last, but not least, there is a desire to set an example for those who also struggle to fulfill this dream. Why do I want to set an example?

My immediate family came from a long line of farmers and trade workers, and I’m the first to go beyond high school. With only an eighth grade education, my father ran his own business. My mother earned a high school diploma and became a secretary. Educational opportunities simply weren’t there for my parents during Depression and post-WWII years.

Those in our family who went to college did so later in life. However, few of them were returning to school after 50. Although I started out with a GED, a couple of tenacious ancestors made me realize that I could do more. My parents are no longer living, but they always conveyed the value they placed on education. I know how much it meant to them to see me graduate Phi Theta Kappa and receive my AA.

Two teachers and a high school counselor also helped build a life-long desire to continue my education. A male sixth grade teacher rewarded my talent in math and science, way before it was fashionable for girls to be good at those subjects. Typing a Master’s thesis for my high school counselor opened the door to an interest in counseling and working with people that became a part of my career, and an excellent history professor changed my attitude toward history and taught me that it could be interesting and exciting. In turn, I want my children and grandchildren to value education and meet those who will change their lives too. I want them to see it as an experience to treasure, even when there are obstacles to overcome.

It literally took me ten years to complete an AA. Because I was a single parent and distance programs were in their infancy when I started college, I took courses through television and correspondence at first. My employer reimbursed the tuition, and I obtained financial aid. Meanwhile, I also built a career and raised a family. By the time I finished an AA, the children were grown, but I still couldn’t afford the tuition to continue to the university for the final two years. Even financial aid and a job didn’t cover the gap. The choices available to working adults today weren’t there yet. However, I never lost sight of the next rung on the ladder toward my BA.

When I remarried, my new husband supported my goals, and my business experience complimented my desire to major in psychology and work in human services. By then, I also had substantial experience in working with adults with developmental disabilities. However, his job required moving and travel, and the care of our three elderly parents fell to me. Nevertheless, I tackled a distance BA program. That stalled when I became the case manager for my parents, who were both in a nursing home at the same time, in another town. After they died, my husband’s education temporarily took priority to insure our long-term financial security. This time he was the one returning to school after 50.

We planned for me to enroll in college again, as soon as he finished his degree. However, a medical crisis and work relocation delayed our plan until August of 2008, when I enrolled at Upper Iowa University. The UIU distance program fit perfectly in terms of cost and ability to accommodate my special needs, which developed during the interim. Then, the economic downturn hit, and my husband’s Texas employer closed their doors in September 2008.

We soon discovered the value of the degree he completed in 2005. He quickly found another local job, only to suffer another layoff in January 2009. After four months of unemployment, he reluctantly accepted a job offer in Michigan, while some of his peers were still unemployed. At least, we procured a steady income and medical insurance. However, we lived apart and struggled to maintain two homes, which left no money for tuition, even though his salary didn’t allow us to qualify for financial aid. Nevertheless, I completed my class with a high B and talked to my counselor about strategies to maintain progress until I could re-enroll.

On her advice, I’m studying for three DSST exams. I have room in my degree program to add nine credits through DSST (three exams that will count for three upper division credits each) for less than $200 per test, as of this writing. As a successful adult student, who is familiar with self-study and the discipline required, I’ll use this opportunity to study on my own and take the exams, which will increase my credit hours and maintain forward progress during these economic challenges.

I’m moving closer and closer to my goal, and another degree added to my work experience will increase my credibility, as well as provide new opportunities to give back and help others move forward. A recent degree will also add to my economic security and employability as I age. Our world changes constantly, and I must keep pace. Most people will need to work many more years in the future. Sadly, today, an AA degree is not even listed in the college degree selections on most employment databases. Yet, when my husband and I started working, it wasn’t unusual to learn on the job. Experience counted heavily. Now, it’s common practice to disregard resumes without a degree, regardless of experience.

Will I continue past the next degree, or add professional certifications? I don’t know. Was it worth it? Yes. I recommend returning to school after 50, or 60, or any age. My pursuit of education has been a lifelong journey, and I enjoy learning. I’m sure I’ll study in some capacity. Without the influence of parents and teachers who made learning exciting and challenging, I wouldn’t have continued to grow and learn. Without their encouragement, examples, and rewards for the successes, I wouldn’t have developed the confidence to believe I could continue to succeed, and I wouldn’t have instilled a love of learning in my children—that’s a gift that takes more than words to convey.


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