Hitting the Books in Midlife (and Beyond)

I graduated from college for the first time in 1996. I was a shiny, energetic 22-year-old with a dual classics and history degree and almost no responsibility. Yes, it was as fun as it sounds. Pearl Jam and the Spice Girls dominated CD players. (Bill) Clinton was in the White House. Plaid flannel and clunky Steve Madden shoes commanded the fashion landscape.

My friends and I went out several nights a week, usually waiting until after the TV show ER ended at 11:00 pm; even so, I got the best grades of my college career. I attended school full-time and worked part-time, but there were plenty of hours in the day for twenty-something drama. I loved it.

After graduation I moved to a big city. I soon realized that a library science degree was in the cards. My educational script flipped; I worked full-time and went to school part-time. It was undeniably harder than my undergraduate program but very manageable. I remember Wednesdays were my long days, with work and/or classes from 8:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night. Still, without kids or a spouse and as a relative newbie at work, my time was still largely mine. After several years I graduated with an MLIS.

Fast-forward about 20 years, and I found myself seriously considering another degree, this time in genealogy. Of course, life looked a lot different. It included a full-time job, two kids, a spouse, a house in the suburbs, aging parents and in-laws who lived far away. The usual range of responsibilities of a person in mid-life. Considering such a big change stirred up a lot of emotionally-laced questions.

Was I really up for this kind of change? Was it fair to my family? Who was I if I wasn’t on the same career path that I had been since college? “Librarian” was one of the top words I used to describe myself- what happens with that descriptor suddenly gone? Can I function well with extended uncertainty?

After a lot of thought and discussion I took the plunge. I was excited for the challenge of returning to school full-time. I looked forward to immersing myself in the content and dreamed of long leisurely mornings of lectures, books, and coffee.

Reality was indeed rewarding, but not what I envisioned. There were long mornings, of course, but they weren’t spent lounging in my pajamas reading leather-bound books. I spent hours staring at a computer monitor. Assignments were digital and submitted electronically to a university in Scotland. Factoring in the time difference, deadlines typically fell at 7:00 Monday morning. More than once I frantically edited projects while shouting to my kids, “WE’RE GONNA MISS THE BUS!!” and running upstairs to get laundry or downstairs to get backpacks.

I felt divided all the time. Was I giving my family the attention they deserved? Was I absorbing information I paid dearly to learn? The best time for schoolwork was between 9:00 pm and 2:00 am. Everyone else was asleep, outside demands slowed, and I could focus. All-nighters? Sure, I could still pull them when necessary, but they wiped me out for two days afterwards. I felt like I was studying all the time but in reality, I crammed in schoolwork around my responsibilities to other people.

These were not the study sessions I had breezily knocked out between episodes of 90210 and fraternity parties when I was 20. I was just different, for better or for worse. My brain was different. It was otherwise occupied and my energy spoken for in a way it hadn’t been before.

I was not perfect. I occasionally blew deadlines or checked out at home. I lost my temper and questioned my decision. I did my best not to drop the ball too often in too many arenas.

On the positive side, I was a more analytical student and squeezed all the knowledge I could out of the course, like an academic tube of toothpaste I was determined to empty. I felt like more of a consumer than I had at 20 (“How much per credit hour?!?”) and was driven to “get my money’s worth.” At the same time, I appreciated learning for its own sake. I recognized it as a privilege. I strove to truly understand content, not just tick off assignments like a grocery list. I never took the opportunity for granted. Teachers seemed more like peers than instructors, and I made wonderful friends.

Would I do it again? Yes. I recognize the safety net I had under me when I took the plunge. I had an understanding family and financial flexibility, which are huge. I loved the content and enjoyed (almost) every moment, even those where I wrestled with unfamiliar technology or difficult assignments.

Becoming a student in midlife was scary, frustrating, fulfilling, and joyful. It made me reconsider who I am relative to my family and community and my concept of self. It wasn’t what I expected, but I proved to myself that I was up for the challenge.

A worthwhile education at any age.


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