My ultra-boring life

Friday, January 14, 2011

On going back to school


Sorry for the formatting.  I cut and pasted from Word which is simply not pretty, and I'm too lazy to go through the whole dang thing and figure out the formatting.  This is the 2nd essay I did for Non-fiction writing.  Nothing fancy in cites, but I hope you like it.

On the first day of classes, I was pretty nervous.  Would there be other older students in my classes?  How well would my aging body cope with the physical and mental strain of going back to school?  Would I stick out like a sore thumb?  What about my backpack?  Back when I went to school the first time, how you wore your backpack seemed to be pretty important with how you were observed by other students.  I didn’t want to get it wrong. 
I am a non-traditional student.
                As a former “traditional” college student, I find this difficult to admit.   There always seemed to be some sort of stigma to the non-traditional student – like they didn’t do things right in the first place.  This may be simply a product of my upbringing, but it seems in our society that we are told that life moves in a constantly improving continuum – grade school, high school, college, career and family, retirement.  Anything deviating from this line is not “normal” and should be avoided – though very, very few Americans actually follow this pattern in the first place.  Non-traditional students are only one of many roles that deviate from this false norm.
                The term “non-traditional student” isn’t that easy to define.  According to Wikipedia, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says that most of the time it involves age and part-time status – in other words, if you are older than “just out of high school” and/or are going part-time, you’re considered non-traditional, which means that I qualify in spades, as do most students attending institutions of higher learning. 
                But what does this mean?  Nothing, in many ways.  A student is a student, right?  Non-traditional students pay their fees and go to class like every other student, right? 
                For me the differences were varied in both scope and intensity.  It was a very personal thing, going back to school 20 years later.  When I was 18, college was expected of me.  Promoted, adored, encouraged and blessed by parents and the powers that be with money, gear, and lifestyle choices.  This made it easy.  Natural.  Now I go back purely of my own devices, very aware of the idea – whether factual or not -- that I am doing this because I failed at something.  Either I don’t make enough money, or I don’t feel fulfilled, or I’m going back to finish something I was unable to complete in the first place, or I lack some social standing that comes from being “educated enough.”  For me, I wasn’t using or feeling fulfilled by my original degree, so, in combination with therapy for depression, I decided to go back to school.  It’s a slightly different reason than many have for going back.  But then, going back is always different from one person to the next.  For some, it could be the simple joy of being able to intellectualize with others with similar interests; to be able to talk to people about something more than the inanities of daily life. 
                My fears are not simply mine alone.  I have a nephew living with us, nearly the age that I was when I first went off to university, who reflects and magnifies all of my shortcomings.  “You’d better get a good job with that degree or it’s not worth it,” he tells me.  “You’ll just be wasting all of your husband’s money for nothing.”  He doesn’t understand study, work, personal responsibility, or the desire for good grades and makes me self-conscious of everything I am doing wrong. 
On top of this, there are my own fears that I just won’t be able to make it in school these days, at my age.  “Make it” is a purposefully vague term.  Straight As have never been necessary for my well-being, but As and Bs are.  On top of this, a sense of being accepted and liked by authority figures is important to me.  Will I be “good enough” by these criteria to feel fulfilled, thus making the endeavor “worth it?”  Am I even up to the task anymore?  I used to be a National Merit Scholar – one of the best and brightest; I excelled at school.  But now, is it fair to use old grades and test scores to let me in when they don’t represent what I know now?  How will school be different now that the internet is such a big part of our lives?  How will I fare against all of the whippersnappers in a school designed for whippersnappers? 
And yet, I keep telling myself, school is always good -- no matter how hard, no matter how expensive, no matter how time-consuming.  It always makes the people who make the effort to attend, better – though I have no source for that.  I receive nothing but congratulations and “good for yous” when I tell people what I am doing.  So what I am doing is good.   Then why does it feel so scary?
By the standards and determination of the NCES, 73 percent of all undergraduates in 1999-2000 could be considered non-traditional, so we certainly aren’t in the minority.  Many schools have programs specifically geared to the non-traditional student and some schools are geared only to the non-traditional student, such as the University of Phoenix, a popular national program.   Yet many universities are still geared towards the traditional, just-out-of-high-school, full-time student.   The culture is as I remember it being when I was a traditional student 20 years ago – all-encompassing in scope, almost parental in care and detail.  Are you eating?  Here’s a meal plan.  Are you broke?  Here’s financial aid counselors.  Are you ill?  Here’s a health plan.  Are you bored?  Here are activities.  I don’t need these things anymore, but I feel as if I am missing something by refusing them. 
Twenty years can do a lot to a person.  It can teach and edify them with a legion of experiences; it can dull and inure with repetition and hardship.  It can add skills; it can take them away.  Basically, 20 years can make you a different person than who you were, and can totally change your college skill set.  I’ve found that as I’ve come back to school, I’m a little slower and I don’t have nearly as much energy as I had the first time around, which is a special challenge since I now have a household to maintain and a child in my care, as well as having to commute 20 miles.  Having so many of class resources on the internet is a new thing for me as well, and I’m not as sharp as I would like to be.  But some of my skills, I am surprised to learn, have sweetened with time and my experience has taught me things that most of the whippersnappers just don’t know.  I have the experience to tell me that one way is an interesting way to write something, and another way is not.  I can walk up to a situation that requires experience that I have, and I can know it – times where my ten years at a single job make understanding something, like how to write a professional document, easy while whippersnappers in the class are scratching their heads.  It’s a nice feeling.  A rare feeling, but nice.  Different than the bright-eyed, naive schoolgirl I was 20 years ago. 
                As a non-traditional student, though, I am apparently not par for the course.  According to NCES, most non-traditional students attend two-year institutions, work, and drop out after the first year.  Most, apparently, aren’t going for a second undergraduate degree, either, which I am doing.   
                Another aspect of the non-traditional student is simply the factor of being an adult learner – which, according to Wikipedia and the great expert on learning Malcolm Knowles, is any person socially accepted as an adult who is in a learning process, whether formal education, informal learning, or corporate-sponsored learning.   Adults learn – through andragogy -- slightly differently than children and young adults learn through pedagogy (though pedagogy most often refers to learning in general, its original root means “child instruction” and that distinction is what I’m going by here).  Adult learners do best when the learning is purposeful, they are involved with other adult learners, they build upon past knowledge, skills, and experience, they share past learning with each other, and they are learning in an environment of respect.  Physical aspects of aging can impact the learner as well – for instance, I have less energy and more weight than I did the first time I went to school, as many of us older students do.  I need hearing aids and I’m on various medications that slow me down.   Quite a difference from the invincible nineteen-year-old that attended college in Oklahoma so many years ago! 
                What does this mean to higher education models?   According to www.worldwidelearn.com, the old idea of a well-rounded education is giving way to a career-oriented work training model: fewer core courses, more work-specific classes.  More courses and degree programs are offered online, and at a faster pace than traditional degrees, allowing more flexibility for non-traditional students who are working full-time jobs at the same time as going back to school.   Most universities offer night classes to accommodate working or child-rearing adult learners, and the anecdotal demographics reflect this – in other words, I hear there are far more students my age in the night classes than I see in my day classes.
                For me, as well as many other students, online courses aren’t a good option.  The lack of face-to-face interactions and feedback make learning difficult.  But because I am not working at the same time, it’s easier for me to take traditional, daytime classes.  So I am a non-traditional student taking the traditional courses, putting myself in an awkward situation.  For the non-traditional students who choose to follow this course, we will probably still find ourselves a fish out of water.  Is it worth it?  Undoubtedly.   It’s just that while sitting in a classroom filled with nineteen and twenty-year-olds, it doesn’t always feel that way.
                In an interview with BSU instructor Karen Uehling, she brought up the important point that young students and older students each bring something unique and important to the learning environment that they can share with one another.  Youth brings creativity and spontaneity, while maturity brings organizational skills and responsibility.   She wouldn’t exclude either group.
                One thing that I struggle with as I go back to school is fear.  The world out there is harsh, and I’ve learned that I rarely have a handle on what’s going on.  According to Professor Uehling, this is rather common.  In the adult student, she finds too much dependence on the instructor and authority; an irrational fear of failure.  As I speculate on this from my own perspective, I am not surprised.  Having worked for more than one authoritarian boss, we have come to sometimes doubt our own credibility against the authority figure.   
                All of this life experience leads to different motivations for adults and learning, according to Ron and Susan Zemke in the article “30 Things We Know for Sure About Adult Learning.”  Adults don’t usually seek out learning for the sake of learning, but rather in order to cope with specific life-changing events.  And since “the people who most frequently seek out learning opportunities are people who have the most years of education, it is reasonable to guess that for many of us learning is a coping response to significant change.”  The learning experiences adults seek out are usually directly related to the life-change events that triggered the seeking – so if most of the change being encountered is work-related, then most of the learning experiences sought should be work-related. 
                Not all learning is business, however.  For myself, I am not seeking so much a career as a purpose that builds me up, which also jibes with the Zemkes’ research.  “Increasing or maintaining one’s sense of self-esteem and pleasure are strong secondary motivators for engaging in learning experiences.”
                The culture shock is something I hadn’t considered when going back to school.  Finishing school the first time and trying to find my way in the working world was hard.  The “real world,” as people call it, is much harsher than college in many, many ways.  But once I was used to that, it made coming back to school again another culture shock.  But I must remind myself, the important thing is that I am here and that I am trying.  I don’t need to make straight A’s to succeed.  Remember, college is always a good thing.
                What are some things that can help with the transition of going back to school?  According to Professor Uehling in her book Starting Out or Starting Over: A Guide for Writing, there are many thought patterns we can do well to avoid:
1.        The “Last Chance” Syndrome.  This isn’t your last chance.  If you mess up or don’t finish or find you need different skills, you can go back to school again later.  Remember, school is always a good thing!
2.       The “I Have to Prove Myself” Syndrome.  Don’t be obsessed with grades.  Your focus should be learning and growing, not just doing well.
3.       Don’t belittle the skills you already possess.  Capitalize on them.
                The same difficulties exist for me as for any other student: time, money, resources, and difficulty of classes.  There are some difficulties I didn’t have when I was a traditional student.  Some difficulties I had then have gone away – the biggest of which is that I am not in a position where I need to learn how to be an adult (at least not completely).   As to the backpack question posed at the beginning of this essay – I’ve found it doesn’t matter and I don’t really care.  I’m back for my own reasons now, not part of the lifestyle or culture that is traditional schooling.  Besides, as www.worldwidelearn.com asks, how old will you be in a few years if you don’t get a degree? 

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