"What are you going to do with your degree?"
This is a question I get every time someone finds out I am in college. It isn't as much a question for information as one of disbelief. I just turned 65, and people wonder what one might possibly do with a degree this late in life. My standard answer has become, "I'm going to hang it on my wall." They then want to know my major. They are even more baffled when I tell them it is English. Their silence allows me time to change the subject.
I am a Baby Boomer born in 1951 in the deep South. Even though I went to a small, private, college preparatory school, I was only expected to attend college if I was not engaged or close to it after high school. There were two options open to me according to my grandparents -- become a nurse or school teacher. The only valid reason to attend college for a woman was to have a job she could fall back on in case her husband died or left her. I made everyone proud by meeting a senior early in my first semester and getting married before the semester was over. Thus ended my need for college.
I have always dreamed of going back to school. Money, time, family and a career all got in the way. Eventually, the fear of failure kept me from trying. After working for a non-profit agency for close to 20 years, the funding was cut and I was forced into retiring earlier than I had planned. This was my opportunity; nothing stood in my way. My best friend's daughter was just completing her freshman year. They both encouraged (mostly pushed) me to attend. I was scared, but started the process.
After all the necessary steps, I was ready to start my first semester. Class schedule in hand, I walked across campus to my first class. I found the building and room number, but something was wrong. This wasn't a classroom. Someone asked if I needed help. An older woman standing in the middle of the hallway with an expression of fear gave me away. I explained my dilemma. He smiled and explained that the building I was in was actually two buildings in one with duplicate classroom numbers. I had to go back down the hall to the other set of elevators to find my class. I was embarrassed and relieved.
I was most concerned about being accepted by the professors and other students. While there are other "non-traditional" students on campus, we are not the norm. Many senior citizens take advantage of the free tuition in order to audit classes. There are not very many seniors who are degree-seeking students.
I was in the bookstore this week to pick up my textbooks. The mother of a freshman saw me carrying the tell-tale white box in which the books are delivered.
"What is in your box?" she asked.
"Textbooks," I replied with a puzzled looked.
"Oh my! You already know what your child needs?"
"Um. No. These are my books." I smiled trying to be gracious.
After a moment of the deer in the headlights look, she smiled, nodded and walked away. The cashier looked at me and said, "Awkward." I am not surprised by this type of encounter any longer.
I am now one semester away from being a senior. I am comfortable on campus. I love most of my professors. I have found them to be supportive of the non-traditional students. Most students accept me as an equal. I am included in discussions before and after class. I am invited to be part of study groups. Thankfully, I am not invited to parties. I am going to be ordering my class ring this week, and I can't believe I have come this far.
I have learned that almost everyone on campus feels out of place at some point in their college life. This isn't something reserved for the non-traditional students. It might be your GPA, your race, your sexual orientation, your religious views, your past, your body type or anything that makes your feel alone. My suggestion is that your find your "tribe" on campus. Look for those people who share a common passion or belief system, and don't be afraid to get to know those who are different than you are. I did and I am so glad I did. After I hang my degree on my wall, I think I am going to be heading on to graduate school!