Do You Think You’re Too Old to Go Back to School?
People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure. — Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist
Have you ever had a desire to go back to school, or go to school for the first time, but you think that ship has sailed for you? Are you 30, 40, 50 or beyond? That’s way too old to go back to school… isn’t it? Maybe you think you have forgotten everything you ever learned and it would be too hard, or too humiliating, or too silly to even try.
Maybe you think you don’t have enough time to build a career if that is your goal. I mean, after all, you aren’t twenty anymore. And how would it feel to be sitting in class with teenagers and early twenty-somethings when you are old enough to be their parent, or even grandparent? Going back to school as an older adult can feel like a foolish dream. I know at first it did for me. But I took the leap and it was one of the best things I ever did.
(Note: I know the pandemic will make it more difficult to make the decision to return to school as an older adult. But don’t discount distance learning and online classes. My 30-year-old daughter has returned to school and all of her classes are online. The pandemic won’t last forever, and pursuing your education is a way to hold onto that hope.)
My road to my college degree was a long one. I dropped out of high school in my Junior year when I was 16 years old. I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t want to wait. Instead, I took the test to get my GED and went to college in the fall of what would have been my Senior year of high school. I wanted to major in English and become a writer.
At college, I met a man who convinced me I needed to marry him. By this time I was just turning 18. I was swept off my feet, lost my sense of direction, and married him. I moved to his hometown and that was the end of my college education. He wanted me to get a job and help him build his dream of being independently wealthy at the age of 35. I desperately wanted to finish school, and he promised me that later I could go back. But later never came.
We had three kids and I stayed home with them, which was one of the great joys of my life. But in the back of my mind, I always thought about my education. While I hung clothes on the line I would dream about getting a degree in French and being an interpreter. When I read to my children by the fire at night, the desire to get my degree in English and become a writer would bubble up inside me. Then I went to work at a public garden as a horticulturist and I began to think about getting a degree in landscape design. But those were all just dreams. After 27 years, the marriage ended and I still did not have a college degree.
When I met my second husband, I was drawn to him for his keen intellect and his string of degrees. He was so smart, and I thought I was not smart enough for him. When we would go to social gatherings, I always dreaded the moment when people would turn to me and ask me what I did, and then ask where I went to school. I was in my forties and I was so ashamed that I did not have a college degree.
I found myself thinking more and more about going back to finish my degree, but it seemed like an impossibility. We each had a child in college and I could not justify the money that my education would cost. I tried to put it out of my mind.
Then, a series of events put us in another state, I was in between jobs, and the youngest child graduated from college. This was my window of opportunity.
Several years before, I had become fascinated with the field of horticultural therapy, using plants and gardens as a therapeutic modality for a wide range of populations with physical, mental and emotional challenges. I found a one- year certification program in my area. But that did not feel like enough. I wanted a degree in horticulture, as well. Even though I was an experienced horticulturist, I wanted to show the world that I was qualified. It was important to my sense of self-worth that I be able to say I have a college degree.
So I started an Associates degree in horticulture at the same time I started the one-year certification program. I was 48 years old. My first day in the horticulture science program, I was surrounded by students younger than my kids. I was also one of only two females in the program. It was daunting, but I had never wanted anything so much in my life. I realized that I was ready for this in a way that I wasn’t when I was 18. I was hungry for education and I had a lot to prove to myself. I was determined to make all A’s.
There were semesters when I carried 19 hours. The horticultural therapy certification program required an intensive week of onsite classes each semester at different facilities around the state. (The students in this program were mostly women, and many of them close to my age, which was a nice switch.) Classes were eight-hour days and the nights were spent studying. The rest of the work was done independently and turned in at the end of the semester. It was hard work, but I was driven. My professors loved having me in their classes because I was serious about learning.
Many of my professors were younger than me. My Spanish professor was only slightly older than my daughter, and I sat on the front row and absorbed Spanish like a sponge. Except when I forgot we were speaking Spanish and starting speaking French. One day, my professor put her hands on her hips and said, “ You speak great French, but this is Spanish class.” I blushed, but had to laugh at myself.
Math was a challenge after so many years, but I was able to get a tutor who helped me get the ‘A’ I coveted. On the day of the final exam, the teacher gave us two and a half hours to take the test. When I finished, I looked up and realized I had finished in 45 minutes. Everyone else was still working. I panicked, thinking I must have done something terribly wrong.
I went back through the test and checked all the problems. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, so I turned in my test and left the room with a sinking feeling that my ‘A’ was in the toilet. When the grades were posted mine was a 99. The mistake was a careless one, and I tried not to be mad that I didn’t make a 100. I made the highest grade in the class.
I finished both programs with all A’s and walked across the stage to get my diploma when I was 50 years old. I graduated with high honors, having a cumulative class score of 98.9. I was also chosen the outstanding student in Horticulture and Spanish. (Even if I did speak French when I was supposed to be speaking Spanish.)
My training enabled me to create a position as a horticultural therapist at an adult day care facility. I started as an intern while I was still in school and when I graduated, I was hired full time. I built greenhouses, designed therapeutic gardens, and installed a pollinator garden in the 7 years I was there. I worked with people living with Alzheimer’s and found great joy in improving their quality of life by helping them get their hands in the soil. The program was a success and I felt accomplished.
But my dream of being a writer kept tugging at me, until it would no longer leave me alone. I started daring to dream a new dream. I decided to go part time as a horticultural therapist so I could concentrate on writing. After a year, I was able to step away completely to pursue my writing dream, the one that found me when I was eight years old. I do not regret the time I spent learning and building a career that I loved, even though by most standards it was a brief one. No, it was not a 40-year career, but it prepared me for the next step.
I have proven to myself that it’s never too late to follow your dreams and invest in yourself. At 58, I am ready for Act II. Giving myself the gift of education has instilled in me the courage I need to write the book I have always wanted to write.
If you are considering whether you should invest your time and energy into a college degree later in life, I want to share a portion of a poem that was written in 1859 by the poet Adelaide Anne Procter, who used the pen name George Eliot. It was titled ‘The Ghost in the Picture Room.’
Have we not all, amid life’s petty strife,
Some pure ideal of a noble life
That once seemed possible? Did we not hear
The flutter of its wings, and feel it near,
And just within our reach? It was. And yet
We lost it in this daily jar and fret,
And now live idle in a vague regret;
But still our place is kept, and it will wait,
Ready for us to fill it, soon or late.
No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.
It’s never too late. If you have dreamed of going back to school or starting school for the first time, don’t deprive yourself of that dream. Your place has been kept, and it will wait, but don’t make it wait forever. This is your time. Go and be what you might have been.