Going back to school is cool

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Barbara Ruben

It’s back to school time, and for many students, that means butterflies in the stomach and first day jitters.

But for adults going back to school after raising a family, there can be an added layer of initial self doubt.

As Karen Parker Thompson recalled when she enrolled in a masters program at American University (AU) earlier this year, “I was looking at all the things we had to read and studying for tests and said, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I get myself into?’”

Thompson, 53, had a contract working with Alexandria City Public Schools, where she coordinated family involvement and community resources. When her work came to an end, she was pondering her next career move.

Having two daughters in college, and one who recently graduated, spurred Thompson to consider revisiting the ivory tower and pursuing her own advanced degree.

“I was at a crossroads. Do I want to make a U-turn or reinvent myself? My heart took me back to working with families,” she said.

Thompson decided on AU’s Master of Science in organizational development. “I thought it would really enhance the work I do in community organizing and engaging families,” she said.

As for her progress to date, she said “it’s easier [than the last time I went to college] because I’m more focused. I have to do all the stuff I told my daughters to do for years: study, prepare for class.

“Of course, it’s easier saying it than actually doing it,” she admitted. “I’m still trying to get my rhythm.”

It helps that her daughter Ariell is a junior at AU. “I call her up and say, ‘Do you want to go to the library?’ She thinks it’s cool,” Thompson laughed. Mother and daughter even plan to graduate at the same time, in two years.

And after that? Thompson is thinking about continuing on to a PhD in psychology.

While students over 50 still make up a tiny minority of university students in the United States, the percentage of older students in general is growing.

Between 2000 and 2009, the enrollment of college students 25 and over rose 43 percent, while those under 25 increased by only 27 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students between 50 and 64 made up 3.1 percent of total undergraduate college enrollment and 6.9 percent of graduate enrollment in 2009. Those 65 and older comprised only 0.4 and 0.3 percent, respectively.

Middle-aged undergrad

Sandra Green graduated from high school 37 years ago and hadn’t been back to school until she enrolled in Trinity Washington University in the District two years ago as an undergraduate.

Green had spent years caring for her disabled son, but longed to further her education.

“I wanted to go so much to fulfill a dream. I watched my daughter grow up and go to college, my friends, my sisters, everybody. And I was just left home being a caregiver,” she said.

An article about Trinity’s associate degree program at THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus) in Southeast Washington sparked her interest. So Green found a patchwork of care for her son and signed up to take an initial placement exam.

“Mind you, I haven’t taken an exam since I stepped out of school when I was 18, and I’m 55 now. I wasn’t sure how that was going to go or if I could keep up with the other students,” she said.

Going back to the classroom was definitely challenging, but Green persevered.

“From that day I walked in there, hard as it was, I never missed a semester. I just kept going. I kept thinking about how old I was, thinking if I don’t make it now, I’ll never get it.”

Green earned her associate’s degree and is now enrolled at Trinity’s main Northeast Washington campus as a criminal justice major. She hopes to work with youth once she has graduated.

“Criminal justice is something I wanted to do since I was in high school. But I never got there,” she said. “This will give me a few years to work a little before I retire.”

One of the biggest rewards of returning to school has been her daughter’s response.

“My daughter is so proud. She said, ‘Look at my mom. She went back to school and she’s making good grades,’” Green said.

Preparing to teach

For Steven Halloway, going to American University for a master’s degree in film is a capstone for his career. Halloway, 57, graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology 30 years ago and has carved out a career in film and video production over the intervening decades.

A resident of Laurel, Md., Halloway made a film about primates in captivity that aired on PBS, as well as numerous other documentaries.

Now he wants to teach filmmaking to others. But first he needs a master’s degree, so he enrolled in AU’s weekend program. Classes meet all day on Saturdays. Students can earn their degree in three years.

“The main reason I want to start teaching is to give back,” Halloway said. “I feel like I have something to share.

“I feel like I can combine what I already know with a degree and really do something significant. It’s the right time and the right stage in my career.”

Halloway already has a head start on teaching; he worked as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate class over the summer.

As for becoming a student again himself, “I’d say the first day is the toughest, when you realize you’re going to be the oldest in the class. But it wasn’t that bad — and it turns out there are older students than me in many of my classes.”

Just for the fun of it

Not all older students go back to school to obtain a degree. Some just enjoy learning for its own sake.

Fortunately, that’s a very affordable pastime. State schools in the area offer free tuition to older students who aren’t earning credits towards a degree.

But if you’re just auditing a class, generally you can only register after paying students have done so, which means some classes may be full.

John Weidner, of Springfield, Va., rediscovered the joy of learning while taking geology classes at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. He’s taken field trips to the Chesapeake Bay and Blue Ridge mountains completely free of charge.

“I think it’s one of the neatest things I’ve discovered as a senior. I enjoy it very much, and I certainly intend to keep doing it,” said the retired systems engineer.

“I’m 69. I have all the degrees I need. I’m not going to be a geologist. Taking these classes without pressure is a wonderful experience.”

Weidner said there are students of all ages in his classes, which he also enjoys. He estimates that 10 to 15 percent of his classmates are 50 or older, while many are in their 20s.

“Young people are often very encouraging, very supportive, very friendly,” he said. “We’re all students in a class together.

“Yeah, I’m older than their grandparents. But what the heck?”