You’re never too old to learn

Me and my advisor at my 1996 graduation

I made the decision last week to return to school, something I chose not to do when I left high school thirty years ago.

I always liked school, and did well with my studies. Being an introverted child, school gave me a chance to shine that I sorely needed to feel good about myself. I may not have had many friends on the playground, or been comfortable participating in sports or after-school activities, but I sure could write a book report or conjugate a verb. Other kids in the class often didn’t like me a whole lot, as my high marks raised the bar for them on the grading curve. But I didn’t care. I preferred being smart to popular.

When I graduated from high school, with honors, in 1980, I was planning on going to college to study computers and data processing, a pretty new trend at that time that was ready to explode. I would have gotten in on the ground floor, so to speak, and who knows what I’d be doing today. But, that summer I got the crazy idea that I’d like to run the business that my boss was selling, a small convenience store and gas station that I worked at during my last year of high school. The idea of being my own boss greatly appealed to the introverted me, not to mention all of the organizational skills that running a business involves. Another chance to shine and put my sharp discipline and anal-retentiveness to work.

So, college plans got scrapped in favor of business plans, and on Nov. 10, 1980 – thirty years ago this week – I became the owner of my own business, TRM, Inc., at age 18. I remember that day distinctly, standing alone in my new office after the lawyers and oil company executives left and realizing that I didn’t know the first thing about running a business. But I was (necessarily) a quick learner, and I had a pretty successful run there that lasted for seventeen years, along with another twelve in the newsstand business. You can’t say I’m fickle.

When my business ventures ended three years ago due to unforeseen circumstances and some admittedly poor choices, I was again left feeling inadequate, as I often do when I don’t have something I can pour myself into (entrepreneurship, school) that provides me with a feeling of pride and self-worth. An identity. I’ve therefore spent the last three years trying to regroup and redefine myself, all the while not being quite sure who I am any more. What defines me? What makes me feel worthwhile? What am I here to do? What is my life’s purpose and mission? What gets me up every morning? (or, in my case, night? – I work third shift.)

All good questions, and the limbo I found myself in was not necessarily a bad thing, although it often felt that way. At times I felt lost, worthless, hopeless, over-the-hill, out to pasture – all those scary metaphors that follow a failure and come with the onset of middle-age. At times, I buried myself in things that bring me solace, namely heartfelt and introspective music, books, movies. Things that stir my thoughts and emotions and pull me out of my funk. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But I’ve always been inspired by art and greatly admire those who create it, especially when that creation moves me. What a wonderful power, to move others with your creation. Now there’s a purpose!

So, somehow, all of this churning around in my head for three years finally led me to the decision last week to pursue something that always interested me but that I felt too old and washed up to allow myself to act on – returning to school to get a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. I did earn my Associate’s degree in 1996 in Journalism through very part-time study, but now I have much more time on my hands and, with the wonderful advent of computer-based “distance learning”, the opportunity to attend college while holding down a full-time job. And government loans and tax breaks make it feasible.

Distance learning is starting to explode as the need for it increases (large numbers of displaced workers) and as technology makes it easier. It’s cheaper than attending college as a resident student (a good thing in this sour economy) though still upwards of $10,000 a year, and many colleges realize it’s a burgeoning and profitable revenue source. True, there are fly-by-night “colleges” out there that aren’t accredited and mainly want to take your money in exchange for a relatively worthless diploma. But that stereotype is changing as many legitimate colleges enter the fold. The degree conferred by these colleges is just as good as the one given to resident students (indeed, there is no difference), and the course work just as challenging. In fact, studies show that students who participate in distance learning demonstrate more discipline and effort than ones in actual classrooms.

The Internet and specialized software allow for classroom-type discussions via forums and topic threads (participation is mandatory), live chat or email with fellow students and the professor, online transmission of course materials and exams (though textbooks are still used), and basically most anything you can do in the classroom. Obviously some disciplines aren’t viable online (think chem lab), but many are. It’s perfect for anyone with an erratic work schedule or other adult obligations, as the course work can be done when it’s convenient for you, so long as you keep up with the weekly assignments (this is called “asynchronous” study, i.e. not in real time).

Yes, I’ll miss out on campus life, but as an introvert I don’t much care for that anyway. This is perfect for me, and has imbued me with a new sense of direction and hope. Will my degree be marketable when I graduate at age 52? Who knows? Many employers are recognizing and valuing the perseverance and dedication of non-traditional adult students. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the journey that matters – the learning, the edification I will feel while in school and afterwards, the improved writing skills, the greater appreciation I’ll have for literature, the different opportunities I may have as a result of my degree. It will make my life richer, regardless of any career outcome.

And, if I again find myself missing something and feeling lost after I get my degree, I have the knowledge that I can always continue on in my studies, ad infinitum, and it won’t take me three years to decide on it. Learning needn’t – and shouldn’t – end in one’s youth.

I found this gem on

The oldest person in the world to receive a college diploma was Nola Ochs. She recently received her Bachelor’s degree in general studies and history from the Fort Hays State University, in Kansas. It was a wonderful moment when Governor Kathleen Sebelius awarded the degree and the crowd of 2176 graduates broke into a standing ovation at her achievement, which included her own granddaughter. Nola Ochs was 95 years old. But that was not the end of her educational career. She got her master’s three years later, at 98, this year. Other students were fascinated when she could give them first-hand, eyewitness views of the History they were studying.

I wonder if they offer senior discounts……