By Linda Milligan
I set my readers on my nose, powered up my tablet, and navigated once again to the DSU (Delaware State University) Admissions webpages. Not reading the words, which I surely knew by now, I instead gazed at the pictures of the intelligent, fresh-faced scholars, each of whom undoubtedly could be one of my kids.
As a DSU employee, I have always felt familiar to some degree with the student age demographic on campus. In the course of admissions season, when dorms are filling up and classes are starting, one need only observe the crowded Admissions Office to appreciate the inimitable shine of youth – of fledgling years and infinite prospects.
This semester, however, was different. This semester, an old lady like me went to sign up for classes. And that same stroll through the Admissions area, once uplifting, was now unsettling. “Linda, what are you thinking, a middle-aged woman like you enrolling in a traditional secondary-education program?” I thought. “How will I feel” I wondered, “sitting in a classroom with all of these kids?”
From Glass Slipper to Glass Ceiling
Driving home from work that evening, my mind wandered back in time to my own youth when, after successfully competing in a university environment, I was won over by dollar signs into the exciting and prolific reality of owning and operating my own small business. Time truly does fly and that business venture extended into caring for my elderly father, and then my mother. Then, in time, I was swept away into blissful marriage. It was a fairytale existence at least in Northern New Jersey, where whether one had a higher college degree was basically of little consequence. Back then, when opportunity was near limitless, folks were more interested in what one could do as opposed to where or for how many years one went to school. Now, post the 2008 financial crash, and moving south with my husband to Dover, Delaware, I encountered an altered philosophy and a different way of life. The focus has shifted. A college degree is everything and a higher degree is even better. “Yes” a whisper to myself, “it is time to go back to school.”
Late that night, realizing I was not ready for slumber, I decided to engage in a bit of arbitrary exploration online. What I found gave me faith in my re-entering the world of academia. I found that I am, in fact, part of a movement of older, more mature scholars returning to college after some time off for real life. It turns out that the phenomenon of the returning older students is a trend that has been going on for a while and that students, like me, who are often referred to as “nontraditional,” now constitute a substantial part of the average student body.
Data Support Nontraditional Student Success
The NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) defines nontraditional students as meeting one of seven characteristics: “delayed enrollment into postsecondary education; attends college
part-time; works full time; is financially independent for financial aid purposes; has dependents other than a spouse; is a single parent; or does not have a high school diploma.” According to the NCES, “in 2009, students aged 25 and older accounted for roughly 40 percent of all college and graduate students and that figure is expected to rise to 43 percent by 2020 as 9.6 million older students head to campus.” The Seattle Longitudinal Study tracked the cognitive abilities of thousands of adults over 50 years and concluded that middle-aged individuals performed better on four out of six tests than the same individuals performed as young adults. The Atlantic educational annals speaks of University of Southern California psychology professor, Margaret Gatz, who poses that the mature student will likely have “… a better sense of purpose and focus and thus be able to capitalize better on what is offered.” Another advantage is that the older student brings a lifetime of experiences and knowledge to the new information being presented and thus can have a richer learning experience.” In the same archive, James Fallon, a neuroscientist at University of Irvine, asserts, “People are at their maximum cognitive abilities in their 60s. It’s the ideal time to balance their executive functions, which younger students don’t necessarily have yet, with intellectual techniques which are likely still there but haven’t been used for a long time.” Fallon, who is 66, declares, “I have never been more creative and productive.”
Here to Stay
My first day of class, I walked into the classroom feeling somewhat assured. By the end of my first class, I saw that I could keep up and that I even had some answers. I saw that the professor and the students did not exclude me from class discussion. It was nothing like I had imagined. The time flew.
Just about every fear I had was quelled on that first day. I realize now that I can do this, and why not? The need to play multiple competing roles at once is not new to me. I have been juggling life roles – those of business owner, caregiver, best friend, spouse, community activist – for the greater part of my life. I know what I want. I’ve held jobs, I’ve paid bills. I know what opportunities are out there, how good and how bad it can be, and what success costs. Those years of life outside of the classroom I was learning all along. I was honing my skills and the knowledge I have retained has served me well, and in unexpected ways. To date, I have received four “A” papers and I “aced” my first quiz. My life experience has been nothing less than an asset to my academic calling and the life lessons I’ve learned only motivate me to do my very best. This “nontraditional” student is here to stay.