Re-entry students raise the bar

MaryAnne Shults

Two weeks into spring semester, I noticed a woman hurrying to her car in a Saddleback College parking lot. She appeared to be in her late 40s, about the same age as me, and was clearly on the verge of bursting into tears. Being both curious and altruistic, I approached and asked if she needed to talk. Her shoulders began to quiver and tears burst forth. Through her sobs, she told me that one of her instructors had just belittled her, and the humiliation was stronger than her dream of obtaining a business degree. She had just withdrawn from her classes.

Her tale of woe is shared by many adults, especially women, who take on the task of returning to college during middle age. Some are wives and mothers with families who selfishly don’t support their goals, simply because it takes precious time away from the duties of a woman in those roles. Others have suffered the emotional and financial trauma of divorce, and are now raising their children, often in the difficult teen years, on their own. Throw in endless hours of reading books, writing papers, and homework in addition to duties at home, and the pressure can create stress that requires an enormous amount of dedication to overcome.

However, some women have prioritized the benefits of returning to school and have successfully overcome the hurdles.

“The difficulties of returning to college were based on my own perceptions,” said Christy Ake, a psychology professor at California State University, Fullerton. Ake returned to college in her 40s after leaving Arizona State University to marry and raise her two boys.

“Fear was my biggest stumbling block,” Ake said. “But sometimes you have to jump off the cliff.”

My first semester as an adult college student was terrifying. I remember feeling under-confident and certain that I wouldn’t fit in. However, I quickly learned that the reactions of my classmates and instructors were completely opposite. Soon I found myself sitting in class, not hesitating to ask questions or contribute to the discussion.

I raised the bar on my personal expectations. This time around, I wanted to be the honor student, not the insecure sorority party girl that I had been 30 years before. I dived in head first, never considering that perhaps the water was too shallow and I’d break my neck.

“For the most part, professors love re-entry students because they are more serious and on top of it,” Ake said. “Plus, they are more involved in the material.”

Ake said that upon her return to college as a student at Cal State Fullerton, she would sit in the front row and tape her lectures. “I excelled and really enjoyed it,” she said.

One’s life experience is often the best lesson.

After several terms, my family and friends told me that I seemed different. When I asked how, the general consensus was that I was happier and more confident. My self-esteem had shot up, plus I’d learned that young people, often the same age as my own children, could be my greatest allies. Not to mention the friendships I developed with my instructors.

“Friendships go across all age barriers,” Ake said. “[My classmates] kept me young.”

As for the woman in the parking lot, I gave her one of my business cards and asked her to call me. I also told her about the excellent resource at Saddleback, The Re-Entry Center, and told her to call the center’s officer, Sholeh Alizadeh, or to at least come to one of the center’s Wednesday morning re-entry support groups.

I never did hear from her. I’m hoping perhaps she reads this online, and will take the bull by the horns and give it another try. There will always be those who make you feel small—that’s life. But finishing one’s education as an adult, and combining it with life’s lessons, can develop the stamina needed to begin a successful career.

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