My college career began at the College of Eastern Utah in 2004 shortly after I graduated from Carbon High School. I was 18 and incredibly immature. I was overwhelmed with my post-high school lifestyle—working full time, taking a full load of college classes and getting engaged. I ended up failing all of my classes because I foolishly thought I could pass without attending class. My new husband joined the Air Force, and I took a 15-year break from college to be a military wife and mother of two.
Because I had failed at college the first time around, I was terrified when I tried again in 2019. My head was bombarded with internal messages such as, “I’m too old for this,” “I can’t afford it,” “it will be too stressful,” and “I’ll just fail again.” I greatly regretted not finishing college so I couldn’t pass up another opportunity. I took what felt like a huge risk.
I began attending Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, which has 5,041 students on its small campus. They are kids, primarily from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and fresh out of high school. I was intimidated and embarrassed to be a 33-year-old freshman with classmates 15 years younger. I was the only student older than 20 in large classes with as many as 70 students. I felt isolated and alone.
Two of my professors were younger than me. That may have been even more embarrassing. These women had pursued PhDs and were experts in their field —and there I was taking freshman English and learning the basics of academic research and taking simple grammar quizzes. To my surprise, these women treated me more like a colleague than a subordinate and I quickly developed friendships with them. The positive relationships with my professors made all the difference. Their support and encouragement helped me rid myself of the insecurity, doubt, and negative self-talk about being an older college student. I found that professors like older students because they tend to take their studies seriously. They are in school because they want to be, not because they are obligated to be. I started to feel confident in my studies.
I moved to Price and transferred to Utah State University Eastern while in the process of divorce. I started classes here with a new set of insecurities and negative self-talk about being a single mom while attending college. The student population at USU Eastern is 1,307 and vastly different than at Midwestern State University. MSU has greater racial and cultural diversity, while USU has a greater diversity in the age range of students. 13% of the student population at USU is older than 30, and only 42% are ages 18-23.
While I have learned to feel more comfortable as an older college student, especially at USU, I am still constantly invalidating my own experience. When offered awards and opportunities such as working on campus or writing for the campus newspaper, I immediately resist. I think, these opportunities are for the real students. I know I am a real student, but I can’t shake this feeling that I’m not as much of a student as the traditional college age students.
Even though I have felt isolated and embarrassed about starting over in my mid-30s, I have found that my life experiences make college easier for me than it was when I was 18. The great thing about embarrassment is that it leads to humility. When I was 18, I wasn’t humble enough to ask for help when I needed it. I just stubbornly did things my way.
When I was taking the one math class required of English majors at MSU, I experienced great frustration. The class was online and during a summer semester, so it moved quickly. One day I was sobbing over a set of problems. My then-husband grew frustrated and told me to drop the class. I had already failed once, and I did not want to fail again. I told myself that before I dropped the class, I was going to call my professor. She spent an hour with me and walked me through the problems and how to work through them. Something clicked in that hour of one-on-one tutoring, and I saw the class through to the end. After that, just knowing help was available was invaluable support.
This experience taught me how rewarding it is to ask for help. Not only did I receive the help I needed, but it fostered great relationships. I made it a point to take advantage of writing conferences with my professors and academic tutoring services.
In addition to the age gap between most of my peers and myself, I am unable to attend student activities after 5 p.m. because I must care for my children. This social isolation is often depressing, but it comes with its own set of rewards. When I was 18, I was primarily concerned with spending time with my fiancé and friends. Now that I am not overly concerned with my social life, I know just how focused I can be. Motherhood showed me the value in routine and stability and gave me a great work ethic. It was easy to bring that to my studies.
I have great respect and admiration for my traditional college-age peers. I wish I had finished my degree when I was “supposed to.” College is a challenge for everyone, no matter our ages. Each person has their own set of unique challenges. It’s important to identify our individual strengths, weaknesses, and to identify the best ways we can support ourselves. For me, it is developing positive relationships with my professors and being humble enough to ask for help when I need it. And looking back, it was also taking time to grow up a little more and bringing more maturity to my studies.
I know I am not the only older college student plagued with worry and self-doubt. My negative internal dialogue was completely wrong. I don’t think it’s ever too late to start college. Taking what felt like a huge risk has opened up incredible opportunities not only for my future career, but also for personal growth. I am happy and relieved I am finishing what I started so long ago.