Once considered a time for “retirement,” the Third Age (50-75) now entices one to explore. Many journeying through this period are embracing additional education that will allow them to move in the direction of their passion and pursue their dreams. Encouragement abounds as these adult learners attempt to embark on positive, healthy career transitions and change.
For over two decades, nontraditional students have comprised close to 40 percent of the college population, spanning a range of backgrounds and experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and GED® credential holders to 55-year-old professionals and skilled workers in career transition.
The most significant shift is probably the massive growth in the adult student population in higher education. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 2019.
As a group, nontraditional students have changed the way that higher education operates. There are some twenty-first century trends in education that promise to reshape the face of higher learning.
For higher education institutions to effectively mobilize to meet our real education needs, it will be necessary first to recognize the diverse faces of higher education – and that means recognizing the extent to which adult learners are the future of higher education.
For me, stories shared by others – learning more about individual experiences – helps one gain a sense for the journey. So, as promised in last week’s blog, I will continue where I left off…and tell you the story of a dear individual who took the deep plunge that allowed him to embrace his passion and fulfill his dream. I hope it is as inspirational for you…as it was for me…
WHAT THOUGHTS, FEELINGS OR MEMORIES did you experience as you attempted to identify and embrace your passion?
Although I didn’t recognize it early in life, the process of identifying and unfolding my dream (which ultimately became my Third Age life’s work) began very early in my life.
My dad’s role as Commandant of Education for The NATO Alliance, brought his love for learning into our home. His gentle guiding hand massaged my heart in ways I did not fully understand at the time.
As well, my grandmother was a librarian and archivist who rarely hesitated to express her love for books. As a consummate storyteller, her telling brought events in history to life. I continually strived to be more like her…but, never contemplated either of these professions as personal careers.
In the end, I think these two people (and probably several others) were catalysts who instilled thoughts and feelings within me that seem to have never faded.
HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH or overcome what tugged from within? What did the struggle look and feel like?
Like most kids, I wanted to make my own way – draw my own “line in the sand”! I had no interest in doing what my dad did for a living nor what my mother wanted for me (football hero). I strived to be my own person – autonomous and free. The result was early life careers that seemed more like hybrids of the two – what the kid in me wanted and what I was exposed to growing up. I initially became a salesman – a teacher of sorts – in a service focused industry.
Others have told me I have a charismatic persona. So, I’m guessing that my early ventures into the field of teaching allowed me to use that persona to gently influence and move people to a place they were able to trust me and learn more about services they were initially unfamiliar with. I believed that by inspiring them to make a purchase, I was, in essence, “teaching” and assisting them in learning. My own personal growth was also greatly enhanced by this type of work – I gained comfort in speaking to people in a way that allowed me to feel like an “expert” in something.
That experience them led me down another interesting path – not necessarily a teacher (professor), but, nonetheless, a trainer of minds – as Vice President of Human Resource.
WHAT TECHNIQUES OR PROCESSES did you use to help unfold your true passion?
At this stage of the journey, I believed I’d found the “Holy Grail” of sorts. I was interviewing candidates, learning their stories, finding the “right” “place for them in our little school” (Corporate), and training them in the “ways of the world.”
What more could a soul want, right?
During that time, I thought my role somehow possessed divine powers. I got to craft a world that might be a better place for employees. I was available to assist them with life’s many challenges. Then, the technology crash hit. Suddenly, my intellectualized world returned to reality. My role abruptly shifted to “the teacher” who had to deliver bad news – one I was ill-prepared and uncomfortable with doing.
At this point, I wondered: How do you stop someone’s story – in mid-process – and inform them it can’t be completed the way they believed it was intended to be told. Lives were crashing around me – including my own. My chosen vocation was moving in a direction (curriculum modifications) I ethically did not embrace.
Fortunately, my ethical spirit brought me full circle. It helped me realize it was people’s stories that mattered – those pain-filled blue eyes, the crushing expressions of fear and confusion, and the brusque reality that the world was not as we imagined it filled my heart. Listening to the stories of all of these displaced employees helped me comprehend my own life. They created a spark that awoke to a loud noise that echoed “you’ve gone down the rabbit hole.” I had shut down and stopped listening to my heart – a place where dreams and passion exist (if you allow them).
HOW DID YOU DETERMINE NEXT STEPS or know where to turn for guidance, etc.?
For the next year, I was guided down a variety of interesting paths. Initially I found work as a supervisor in a Call Center – another great environment to deploy my interest and skill at teaching – training and educating others. Then came a series of chance encounters. They started at a local coffee shop.
There she was – sitting at the table behind me. I’d often seen her at that same coffee shop…but, I’d never been in such close physical proximity. Then came the sneeze – a quick, abrupt bellowing of noise. I turned and there she sat – hand over her mouth, those warm brown naughty puppy-like look on in her eyes. I’m not sure why…but, at that moment I felt that simple sneeze was about to turn my life upside down. For close to six months, we sat in this coffee shop as this woman posed questions no one before her had ever challenged me with. This probing, of course, caused me to pause, ponder – even implore myself to think about me. If I wanted to maintain this connection and keep the conversation alive, I needed to find a way to align with the voice within – hounding me to try to understand where I fit in…where I belonged.
This journey, of course, was not without challenges. A commitment to ME and many chance encounters led me to sources that allowed me to further my education and develop my ultimate dream of becoming a college professor. In the end, though, love, support and sacrifice have inspired me to morph and safely travel along life’s journey.
WHAT IF THE PROCESS doesn’t turn out the way you’d hoped or planned? What then? Do you give up and resign yourself to some sort of unexplored work life and find satisfaction in that?
Prior to graduation, I was offered a teaching job at a place where I would have been proud to teach. Sadly, unbeknownst to me (and others), this well-respected Jesuit college’s administration was undergoing turmoil. This created chaos, deception, and in the end left me (and others) unpaid and feeling dismayed.
Over the next 9 months, requests to interview with Ivy League colleges and other top-tier universities began to pour in (98 in all). As I interviewed with these schools, it became quite apparent that the schools had shown an interest in me because I approached education from a new and unique perspective – one they may or may not have been quite ready for. Sadly, in the end, they chose to go with the old tried-and-true (tenured). During the process, it became glaringly apparent – based on the caliber of the other candidates – which I was competing in an environment that might require additional education (I start my Ph.D. during the Spring 2015).
To many, additional academic training at my age (58) might seem fools-play. I, however, believe that in order to make a shift like this it is necessary to be grounded in the belief that a dream is worth following – fighting for – through to the end – even if the end cannot be seen on the close-in horizon. Giving up is not an option; however, being better prepared for the long haul with a focus on the journey ahead – and having contingency plans – is critical at any age. Some guru I can’t remember once said – “If you can dream it, you can make it happen,” and that is a phrase well worth living by.
Alan Slinkard is a Professor of Religious Studies and Ethics. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) classes – in Tolkien and Ethics – at a private liberal arts high school near Boulder, CO. If interested in learning more or connecting with Professor Slinkard http://activews.wordpress.com/about/
If Professor Slinkard’s story inspired you to consider embracing and acting on your own passion and you need to return to school for additional education, Wendy Croix offers some insights in her article “It’s Back to School for Adult Learners: New Traditions in Higher Education”…
Tips for Nontraditional Students
If you’re nervous about entering or returning to school as a nontraditional learner, let me give you some advice on how to succeed. This advice comes both from my twenty-plus years’ experience as a university educator and from my student experience. You see, I’ve been both a traditional and a non-traditional student. Twenty-five years separate my B.A. degree from my Ph.D. So, I know what it’s like to return to school after a long absence–and my students have taught me about returning after job loss or divorce.
- Make up any skill deficits before you attempt any higher level study. You must have college level reading, writing, and math skills to succeed. Fortunately, most institutions–both campus and online schools–offer some form of remediation to students who need it.
- Once you’re up to speed with your study skills, enter your degree program with a realistic plan. The average adult learner takes upwards of five years to complete a degree. Adult learners who get impatient and take on too much, too soon are the most likely to drop out–or perform so badly that they have to enter the job market without letters of recommendation from their professors.
- Take advantage of all the support you can find–and plan to devote time and energy to researching and applying for financial aid. You’ll need to make getting (and keeping and renewing) aid an ongoing part of your education.
- Remember: as a nontraditional learner, you’re part of the new tradition in higher education. You’re hardly alone. And if you think you’re too old to pursue a degree that significantly increases your earning power, ask yourself one thing: How old will you be if you don’t go back to school?