The first time I was a full-time university student, I was all of 17. The last time—other than now—I was 28. This time around, I am nearing the half-century mark. What’s different, and what would my advice be to someone my age contemplating a return to school?
I don’t recall having a physical problem with being a student in my teens and twenties. But the first thing that comes to mind when I consider student-hood at 48, unfortunately, is “aches and pains.” I have osteoarthritis in both hips and left the gym long ago to save time and money. The combination with seven months (and counting) on a secondhand chair in front of my computer is not pretty. If I do my daily sit-ups, push-ups and stretches, I get by with minimal twinges. The best help, though, is my daily walks to and from my sons’ elementary school. The younger one complains vociferously and begs to be driven, but I am adamant. Bit of advice #1: Stretch your legs every day.
Another difference is that now I have so many masters. In my teens and twenties, though I certainly did not appreciate the fact, I basically had no one to please but myself. That’s another way of saying I was fairly self-centered … These days, I am pulled in all directions, responding to and working with the kids and my partner, colleagues and supervisor, neighbors, friends, and relatives. It’s one of many Catch-22s we face as we age—the joy of added responsibility, and the burden. What it translates to for this student of 48 is a need to study in very short bursts, at my own pace, and according to my own schedule. Bit of advice #2: Consider distance learning.
An advantage I’ve heard a number of older students voice about going back to school later in life is that we finally know what we want out of the experience. I’m lucky that already in my 20s I was pretty sure I knew why I was studying, and I am doubly sure in my late 40s, so that is not a change. However, what has changed is that I am far better equipped these days to study well. It does come down to that trite phrase, life experience. Particularly, experience with, and of, myself. It helps that I know my demons. I tend to procrastinate. I bite off more than I can chew. I do best when faced with a deadline. I pull late nights (but no more all-nighters). None of these is admirable—but at least I know what to expect of myself. So, bit of advice #3: Know thyself—and plan accordingly.
I’m getting quite nervous in the run-up to exam week in June, especially since I have recently realized I must simultaneously complete my fourth course (I’d thought I could postpone it until the summer—more about that in another post!). But I’d say the final important difference between now and my 20s is perspective. I get that this all doesn’t really matter that much. Of course, it matters to me—I have my personal goals and even my pride that will be wounded if I don’t make it through my classes reasonably well. But next to the fundamental goods and evils, it’s all irrelevant. On one end of the spectrum, my sister-in-law is going to make it through chemotherapy and beat her lymphoma. On the other end, I was in Boston on Monday when 170 people were maimed and three died, including an 8-year-old boy, a Chinese graduate student, and a vibrant young local woman. Bit of advice #4: Put it all in perspective.
In some ways, I find that it’s tougher to be a student at 48. In other ways, it’s a lot easier. But on balance, I still say:
Life is short: Go for it!
Susannah is studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) through the University of London International Programmes.