Returning to College as a Middle-Aged Mom

Traditional College Student

Like many students graduating high school, I knew I was going to go to college.  A few months after my high school days had ended, I had moved into a college dormitory and was attending classes full time.  This lasted for two years, with all the ups and downs common to a new college student.  I struggled to find my place and make new friends.  Figuring out how to keep myself motivated and on top of my studies was not nearly as challenging as getting out of bed in time for my first class of the day.  Learning to manage yourself without your parents there to keep track of you is one of the bigger challenges for most young college students.

In high school, I was considered very smart.  In college, being smart is only "average."  That wasn't easy for me to adjust to and I found that what came to me so easily in high school took a lot more hard work to learn in a college setting.  Students who had struggled more in high school seemed better prepared because they had developed better study skills.  My frustrations and newly found freedom led me to some unwise decisions to party and do self-destructive things.

College - Round 2

After two years at one university, I decided to get my act together and attend a religious school.  This move did help me to get more control of my life.  My grades were mediocre,  but I was feeling a little better and I met the man who became the love of my life.  By the end of that school year, we were engaged.  We were married a few months later, but I had missed crucial deadlines for getting financial aid for the next school year.  School faded out of the picture and my life revolved around marriage, work, and then children.

Life Happens

Twenty years rolled by and our children were in high school.  My husband and I were both working full time.  He was working in a job that ended up being trimmed to a part-time position.  It brought us to a crossroads.  We needed him to bring in full time pay, but his only options at that time were other positions in the company that were much less desirable.  With the advice of his boss, he decided to go to college and get a teaching degree.  He went to school during the day and worked a graveyard shift four nights a week.  I've always loved learning and I soon found myself jealous and wanting to go back to school myself.  Once I started helping him with his financial aid papers, I realized that we would benefit more if we were both in school at the same time rather than having us do it one at a time.  My decision was somewhat tougher since I wanted to keep my current job, so I started with online and night classes.

The Non Traditional Student

I admit it....I was scared. My last college class had been twenty years ago. I was old enough to be the mother of most of the other students in my classes. Walking through the hallways was weird. Other students assumed I was the teacher. People were reluctant to sit next to "the old lady" in the class. Their conversations were about such trivial things and I was blown away at how many of these young people didn't seem to care if they got a decent grade or even passed a class. I soon realized, however, how much better it was to be in college at my age.

  1. When you are personally paying the bills for tuition, textbooks, fees, etc., you take it more seriously. Fail a class and pay for it again? Never!! I was also pretty good at finding more affordable options online for my textbooks.
  2. Assignments and papers are much easier to write. You have all kinds of life experience to draw from. When your English teacher requires you to write a paper about a time when you had to make a life changing experience, you will be trying to figure out which one to write about while the younger students are wondering if they've ever made a life changing decision.You not only have years of your own experiences to draw from, but the experiences of friends and family as well as enough worldly knowledge to cover almost any assignment.
  3. Deadlines and organization mean something to you. You understand the importance of being organized and getting the job done. The other students in your class will probably wait until the night before the assignment is due to start working on it, but you will be jotting down ideas and notes as soon as the professor gives you the assignment. What's the difference? You have time to write and rewrite, reflect on things, and do quality work. Your classmates will battle computer shutdowns, printers out of ink, closed libraries, and a very tired brain. The professor will notice the difference, believe me.
  4. You become a leader. I hate group assignments! Most of my classes had at least one group assignment or project. In the beginning, nobody really wanted to be in my group. By the time I graduated, I had gained incredible popularity for group work. Depending on other people is hard. See #3 above for what I could expect from my classmates. I was forced to become a leader in the group and put solid deadlines on each of them for their parts. Most professors also gave you a chance to give feedback on how the others in the group performed and I took full advantage of that when people in my group didn't help.
  5. Finding a path.  In my original round of college, I changed my major a few times.  I was still struggling with what I wanted to do with my life.  When I returned to college, I had 20 years of life experience that had helped me figure out what I was good at and the kinds of jobs I wanted.  As I took classes in my major, it reinforced what career path I wanted.  It also helped me identify some types of careers I didn't want.
  6. Instant results.  Because I was working while I was earning my degree, I found myself applying concepts from my classes to things I was doing at work.  Even listening to lectures was better because I could associate it with the real world better than the younger crowd.  My younger classmates would have to wait for years to be able to apply the concepts learned in these courses.
  7. Teachers are your friends. The first time I was in college, I was afraid to talk to the teachers. I didn't really see a need for it anyway. Boy, was I wrong! In some of my classes, I was now older than the teacher. No matter their age, I found it easy to approach them and ask questions or make comments. They were happy to have a student taking their class seriously and would give all kinds of help and advice. While other students in the class got no breaks when they tried to convince the teacher their assignment was late because the printer ran out of ink, I had developed such a good relationship with the teachers, that I had an easy time getting an extension on an assignment. My relationship with those professors continues because they remember me and are willing to give me good job references.
  8. Graduation means something. My husband and I were so excited about even getting our associate's degrees, that we made sure to take advantage of everything we could. Two years after that, we were getting our bachelor's degrees. My brothers and sisters graduated from college the traditional way and skipped the pomp and circumstances. After all our hard work, we celebrated! Walking in my cap and gown with my children cheering me on was amazing! At work, I immediately received a raise in pay and other benefits of earning my degree.

Graduating at age 40

Balancing It All

Work, marriage, kids, and college - a recipe for disaster?  Not necessarily.  Here are some strategies for keeping things balanced:

  • Online/Distance classes. Whenever possible, I took online classes so I could at least be at home with my family.  Online or television classes aren't for everyone, so try one by itself before loading up your schedule.  Some of these distance courses let you set your own pace and you will have to avoid procrastinating.  Others keep a pretty regular pace and require online postings to serve as classroom discussion.  I found that there were certain times of night that worked best for me, usually after my kids went to bed.
  • Night or weekend classes.  Many colleges are beginning to offer more classes at night or on Saturdays.  These are often once or twice a week classes, so prepare to be in the classroom for three hours each time.  I found that more people like me (working full time and older) were in these classes.
  • Take classes for lunch.  After awhile, I ran out of classes that I needed which were offered online, on the weekend, or at night.  I worked things out with my boss to take classes during my lunch break.  It makes for a long work day, but if the college is close enough to do this, it's worth it.
  • Change your work schedule.  You may be able to change your work hours to allow you to take classes before work and then work later, or get to work earlier and take some classes after work.  For my husband, working a graveyard shift was the only way he could work and still take the classes he needed.
  • Get help with family needs.  My kids were old enough to help with cooking dinner and other household chores.  I had to miss school concerts and plays, but my husband used to film them for me so I could watch them when I got home. 
  • Talk to your spouse and kids regularly.  This may sound like common sense, but it's easy to get caught up in homework and deadlines.  Make sure you make an effort to find out what's going on in their lives.  Let them know what you're working on and when you're available to do things with them.

Give It a Try

If you are considering college, go for it!  Don't be scared that you haven't been in a classroom for years.  You actually have advantages over those kids who are fresh out of high school.  Find what inspires you and pursue it. 

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Comments 2 comments

RachaelLefler profile image

RachaelLefler 6 years ago from Illinois

Makes me think about my own mom. She started out as a theater major, then changed to creative writing, but now after many years she's going back to get her teaching degree.

Also, I get mad at the "life experiences" thing. Older people have sooo many more interesting things to talk about! Which is great for them, but I'm always like ugh, you've been to Africa and I've been to Iowa. You've dined with royalty and I had to sit by the kiddie table at Thanksgiving and babysit! You've had successful and interesting jobs, and I've never made enough in a year to have to file taxes! It's like, what do I even have to write about compared to you as in you nontrads. But, I really like talking to nontrads a lot because they are so interesting and my mom is one.


karent profile image

karent 6 years ago Author

Rachael, thanks for your comments. I didn't have much to talk about in my first round of college either. Some of my life experiences just made me feel old, but others made me realize I had learned a lot from living. Be patient - you'll have plenty of life experiences before you know it.

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