“I’d send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if only I knew your name and address” (You’ve Got Mail). When Joe Fox revealed to Kathleen Kelley that autumn made him feel like buying school supplies, we instantly knew exactly what he meant. Fall (even more than New Year’s) marks the season of new beginnings. It was that way when we were kids and it’s that way now. The smell of newly sharpened pencils (just like markers, chalk, white glue, and crayons) takes us back to our childhood and opens a flood of wonderful memories.
A single mom, returning to college after a divorce, was trying to explain to her son her new role as a college student.
“Wow!” He counted in his head, squinting at some sort of imaginary abacus. “You must be in the 20th grade!”
After a good laugh, she admitted that this was a good way to describe it. She had not planned on being back in college at her age, but after her husband left her and her son in California so he could pursue another life out of state, she was forced to make a new life for herself. Having married young, she was a stay-at-home mom who had hopes of living a very traditional family life. Now, everything had changed. It usually does.
Eighty three per cent of adult college students say that a major life change was the main reason they went back to school. Among the greatest barriers facing these mid-life women in college are age (I’m too old), cost (it’s too expensive), difficulty (it’s too hard), negative experiences (it’s too painful), social stigma (I’m too embarrassed), irrelevance (it’s too meaningless), and time (I’m too busy).
Since more than half of today’s college students are older adults, and most of these are women, many colleges and universities have programs specifically designed for those of us who are juggling family, career, and studies. Although colleges are slowly making it easier to go back to school, the barriers are still frightening for most mid-life women and the anxiety is extremely high. While the reasons for going back to school are strong, the reasons for not going back are often stronger. Meet seven remarkable women who overcame these barriers by transforming their fears into their greatest motivators. After reading their stories, you will sigh with relief (and resolve) as you confidently claim, “I can do this!”
BARRIER 1: AGE
“I’m too old”
(Martha Harrison, age 79 – owner and operator of a private school in Los Angeles). Having attended countless college graduations of her former students, she never quite got around to it herself – until now anyway. While vacationing in Kenya, she became acquainted with a woman who had returned to college at the age of forty. This woman, who now holds a doctorate, began the familiar line of questioning. “How old will you be in five years if you go back to school?” She set her trap. “How old will be you be in five years if you do not go back to school?” She smiled at Martha, realizing that her point had not been lost in the simplicity of her challenge.
So, after the death of her husband, Martha decided to “start all over again and not waste any time.” When she thought about it, she realized that she wasn’t getting any younger and that now was actually the perfect time for her to go back to school. Her pastor encouraged her to pursue her dream no matter how old she was. If the dream was still there, she had to pursue it. Once she was back in the classroom she realized that while she was still older than everyone else was, she was treated with respect. She actually felt that her age gave her an advantage. It did. It’s called wisdom.
BARRIER 2: COST
“It’s too expensive”
(Brenda Jamison, age 46 – Risk Manager). Before moving from Texas, Brenda conducted an exhaustive Cost/Benefit analysis as she researched various Universities. While she became convinced of the sound investment a college degree was at her age, she became even more convinced when she discovered that she would not be hired (even though she was top in her field with over fifteen years of successful experience) without a college degree. Personally generating $48 million for her company (during the year and a half she was in school) Brenda recognized the importance of due diligence and sound investments.
When she figured out how much money she was losing because of her career gap, she decided that she couldn’t afford not to go back to school. Her new promotion following graduation paid off immediately. Even at her age, she actually made money by going to college. To top it off, she helped launch a new company as a result of one of her class projects. “Killer Coolers” now has distribution both internationally and throughout the United States. When asked if she thinks that her degree paid off, she smiles. “Yeah, I’d say so.”
BARRIER 3: DIFFICULTY
“It’s too hard”
(Linda Thompson, age 40 – Speaker, Author, Wife, and Mom). After several years of searching for her niche, Linda (the wife of a prominent minister and mother of 3 energetic boys) discovered that her passion as wife and mother had evolved into a career once she received her degree in Psychology. Her biggest fear though, was that after talking baby talk for twelve years, she wondered if she could maintain the same academic standards after which she strove in her earlier years. Well, she graduated with a 4.0 proving to herself (and others) that she still had it. (By the way, while she was attending school, she discovered that she and her husband were expecting their fourth child, an unexpected and very improbable surprise!)
Linda was surprised at how much she enjoyed learning later in life. This time around (twenty years later) she found that the classroom and learning actually invigorated her. She loved learning new things and was surprised to discover that she was a much better student than she ever was before. “Things just make more sense to me now.” She was so excited she seemed surprised. “Learning is so much easier as an adult because I am learning about life.”
BARRIER 4: NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES
“It’s too painful”
(Tami Peters, age 36 – Marketing Assistant). When Tami thought of going back to school, she shuddered. For her, college was a time in her life she tried desperately to forget. She was a terrible student, the teachers didn’t seem to care, and her classmates lived in a different world. College was not a priority in her life at that time. She had other things on her mind. Remembering those early years brought back vivid and terrifying memories of her enraged husband beating her and her children. When she thought of her college years, she recalled images of her son being kicked across the room by his father. Going back to college meant she had to face her demons and confront her nightmares. It meant opening up old wounds. But it also meant healing and new beginnings, and taking control.
“Coming back to college was such a scary thing for me, “ Tami confessed. The memories of college as an eighteen-year-old were so humiliating; she was terrified that she would simply relive those terrible experiences. Instead, she has found that faculty are so supportive and really do want her to succeed. The friends she has made are the main reason she has been able to finish. “We have really helped each other get through school. We built such a support system that we plan to keep in touch forever.”
BARRIER 5: SOCIAL STIGMA
“I’m too embarrassed”
(Gloria Richards, age 56 – Philanthropist). Having graced the covers of the Society Pages for years, some might wonder why she needed to go back to college. She didn’t. She wanted to. Going back to school was for personal fulfillment and once she made up her mind, Gloria had few apprehensions about going back even though there might be social recourse. “Back in the earlier years, if a woman married right, she didn’t need to go to college.” It was a sign that she was among the social elite.
When Gloria decided to go back, she really didn’t concern herself with the thought of others. Her husband (President and CEO of a major corporation) had the career. She cared for the family. Once the children had married and established homes of their own, Gloria felt that she was in the perfect time to pursue a degree. Since she was actively involved as a volunteer with an extensive counseling program at her church, she figured a degree in Psychology could prove to be helpful. Today, Gloria serves on several boards and committees, is a highly sought after counselor in her community and has become an admired trendsetter for the social elite wanting to go back to college. Since she has gone back to college, many of her friends have followed her example and have also enrolled.
BARRIER 6: IRRELEVANCE
“It’s too meaningless”
(Sue Jeffries – age 44 – Commercial Property Management). After selling her real estate company to manage her husband’s corporation, Sue had already enjoyed a lucrative career and had clearly established herself as a success story. However, once her kids became more independent, she was ready for another challenge and was even considering another career change.
A no-nonsense administrator, she was used to spending her time in the real world – meeting deadlines, meeting payroll, meeting investors, meeting labor demands, meeting real-life challenges of business. Sue could never quite see the value of a college education early on. That’s why she dropped out in the first place. She was going to school to get a job and then a job opportunity came that paid her twice as much as those college graduates were getting. For her, unless it added to her own marketability, going back to school seemed like a waste of time listening to college professors pontificate about theories that only have value in ivory towers or on game shows. However, the education that she received proved to be practical.
Being able to rely on her past experiences, she instantly recognized concepts that she had been using intuitively. Now, her business acumen makes even more sense. Applying theory to her experiences (rather than the other way around) had given Sue a consuming quest for knowledge once her expectations had been exceeded. She is now pursuing an MBA and plans to earn a doctorate and start a consulting practice so she can provide pragmatic application to other businesses, based on sound theoretical wisdom.
BARRIER 7: TIME
“I’m too busy”
(Diane Fargo – age 39 – Financial Manager). Balancing a successful career as well as raising two children is hard enough. When you’re a single mom though, it seems impossible. Going back to college was an idea that simply sounded overwhelming when Diane first thought about it. Since one of her boys was disabled and prone to seizures, her demands as a mother were even more taxing than most could imagine. However, she decided that she would do it for herself as well as her children. Once Diane began to feel as though a college degree was “career insurance,” it became an urgent necessity. She would find the time, make education a part of her career, and do everything possible to provide for her boys.
At first, she was afraid that going back to college would take her away from her sons. Now she realizes that it was the best thing she could have done for them. She has focus, determination, and is retooling herself for a better career. Not only will her boys benefit from her education later; they have benefited from the very first night of class. “I have actually become a better mom.” And being a great mom was her priority. After overcoming her tumultuous childhood, she vowed that she would not replicate her childhood through her sons.
After living in four foster homes, she was reunited with her abusive mother until moving out at seventeen. From the slums of the inner city, Diane knew at an early age that she had to go to college in order to make it in life. However she lacked emotional support throughout her childhood and two abusive marriages. Plagued with health problems herself, Diane eventually found the support she so desperately needed at church. Through her new faith she went back to college with drive and determination. Even after twenty surgeries including a bilateral mastectomy, Diane excelled with focus. She completed her Bachelor’s Degree and went to another university for her Master’s. At another university, still, Diane is in her final term of coursework for her doctorate. She wants to become a teacher and empower other women. I think she will.
As a college professor, I have taught hundreds of women just like them and I get to see their stories lived out in person every day.
Every student has a story to tell.
Some of them I know. Most, I don’t.
All, however, are still writing their stories.
What will yours be?