How to Survive (and Excel) as a Middle-Aged, Re-entry College Student
Coming Back to College as a Re-entry Student
College isn’t for everyone—or is it? In the twenty-first century, a college education is more important than ever when it comes to preparing for a successful life; however, many American men and women choose not to go on to college right after high school or attend college for a year or so, but then drop out. College can seem overwhelming when one is fresh out of high school, and there are often other reasons than psychological ones, such as economic adversity, a wish to experience the world rather than study, and family pressures including marriage and children.
Students who attempt college but drop out, then return to college later are called, “re-entry students.” Often these students are well into middle age, or even senior citizens, when they return to college. After dropping out at age nineteen at the end of my sophomore year in college, it was twenty-five years before I returned to earn my BA, MA, second BA, and Certificate to Teach Composition. While my experiences as an adult re-entry student were so rich and varied that they could fill a book, here I’ll focus simply on sharing a few tips for staying in college, as well as for excelling, as a middle-aged re-entry student. Of course, some of these tips might apply to any college student!
Working Adult Students - You Tube video by Bell Policy Center (2011)
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Seven Strategies for Success
1. Stay on top of your finances and budget:
Choose a college that you can afford, or get financial aid such as scholarships and federal and state grants, including work-study. If you can pay for college without increasing your personal debt, that is preferable. No one wants debt, but in middle age, going into debt is a much greater liability than when one is young and has more years to pay it off.
Although working and going to college simultaneously is often seen as admirable, like “toughing it out,” in reality, that makes it very hard to do one’s best in either area of life, school or work. Working while going to school makes one constantly tired, limits the time and energy one can dedicate to one’s studies, and can frustrate one’s employer, which might negatively affect one’s job. However, often that is the only option. If you can find a way to work less or not work while in school without increasing your debt, take it. If you must work, it can be helpful to limit your units each semester, though that means it will take longer to graduate. However, if taking fewer units because you have to work means you will be able to give more to those few classes each semester, it is a winning solution.
Keep a clear budget and plan. Accept that sacrificing extras will help you accomplish your goal of earning your degree.
2. Have a clear goal for your education, even if it changes over time:
Think about what you like to do and what you care about. By middle age, most people know much more about themselves than when fresh out of high school. Make a list of your talents, interests, and passions. Which of those translate into fields of study at college? Do you love music, reading, flowers and plants, healing, or business? For each of those, there is a specific major and degree program at most universities. Choose the major and program that align with your talents and passions. Even if you are unsure of how you will make a living in that field, it’s wiser to follow your heart and explore your innate gifts in college, since using your sincere passions and personal strengths is a key to success in life.
3. Work with the support systems provided by your school:
Get to know your school’s academic counselor, financial aid department, mentoring services, health center, tutoring services, and any other student services offered. Most colleges and universities have formal re-entry centers that are central hubs of services for students coming back to college. The re-entry centers often include counseling, financial services, childcare referrals, tutoring services, and much more. Investigate work options on campus and the career center. Look into clubs and extracurricular activities. Within your limits, get involved.
Isolating yourself and telling yourself you are only there for a few years to get your degree and then you will get back to work in the world limits your experience and its potential to help you grow. Additionally, the student services described above can help you stay in school; when you do not know where to turn, get help from them; it’s available on your campus if you look for it and persevere in dealing with the services offered.
4. Realize that older students have much to give:
You and the other older students on campus have a wealth of experience and knowledge plus confidence and social skills that add real value to any situation you are in at college, be it a classroom, a club, or a student job. When the twenty-year-old students in your class are too shy or inexperienced to speak up in class, you can set the example. Your life and work experience will allow you to help and inspire others at college as well.
5. Stop limiting yourself based on your age:
Whether twenty or fifty, people are all people. At college, although dating and mating are constantly going on, people are also looking for friends. While you might meet a new love at college if you are unattached, if you are happily attached, there is no reason you should hesitate to engage with your fellow students and instructors; we are all people and should enjoy and appreciate what each person, regardless of age brings to any relationship or gathering. In college, often people are very open-minded regarding casual friendship and collegiality; open your heart and be free to meet new friends of all ages.
6. Take electives that broaden you:
If you are a business or math major, think about taking a P.E. class, ballroom dance, or Concert Band. If you are an English major, think about taking a computer class or an art class. Reach outside of your degree program occasionally to study additional topics of interest. That could lead you to discover an unknown gift or simply put another tool in your arsenal of knowledge, as well as providing variety in your life as you strive toward your degree goal.
7. Stay healthy physically and spiritually:
Get enough sleep—all nighters are unhealthy for anyone, but in middle age, they are truly dangerous. Taking naps is not being lazy; it can help. Don’t take early morning classes and then work or study until very late on a regular basis; it’s simply not worth it and will destroy your health. Get regular check-ups. Take vitamins and eat right: natural, whole foods, low fat, low sugar, high protein, and plenty of water. Limit alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Limit stimulants—instead of living on coffee, use regular exercise, rest, and healthy food to keep yourself strong.
Remain close to your loved ones and appreciate their support of your school program. Keep your faith strong, whatever your faith might be. Counseling is available for registered students at most colleges and universities; there is no stigma attached and it can be very helpful to talk things over with a trained, objective, and caring counselor, so do not hesitate to seek counseling if you feel troubled or stressed.
Remember, you are to be commended for seeking to develop and better yourself at middle age. Your strengths are many, and there is much help available to you as you work hard to complete your college degree. You can do it! Good luck!
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