by JENNIFER TODD Phd
I have had the great honor of teaching at university and helping to shepherd students through their academic journeys for about 15 years. Every new semester brings a new set of challenges (like teaching during COVID) as well as a new set of gifts, and I celebrate both. For example, the challenge of working with a new student who shared with me in confidence that she was in recovery from recently escaping sex trafficking, and then celebrating with her through tears after she walked across the stage and I handed her a diploma. But another group of students stands out the most to me, and that is the returning older student.
I have been a returning older student myself, and I remember vividly the anxiety around going back to school. Would I be the only one in the room who was born well before the iPhone, or even the personal computer? What if writing a research paper was completely foreign to me after all these years? How in the world will I be able to keep up with younger students? It turns out my anxiety was wholly misplaced.
I have had many older students in my classes over the years, particularly older women. These women always amaze me, semester after semester. In addition to being in general more serious students, they are more likely to meet assignment deadlines and to ask for help when needed. But they will occasionally share with me during advising or registration a recurring sentiment: it’s my turn now.
I have heard this from mothers with grown children who share in confidence that they have supported their children and watched them successfully launch their own lives. They are always proud to have been able to support their children, working hard to give them every opportunity they can, frequently at their own expense, not only financially but in terms of their own professional prospects. “Now it’s my turn,” they tell me with equal amounts of satisfaction and determination.
Their years of sacrifice, encouragement, and cheer-leading from the sidelines for their children are for the most part behind them, and they are ready to shift to a new focus: themselves.
For some older women who are students, they want to return to school after having to leave mid-degree to care for a family. For some, school was not a priority for their younger selves, but they find themselves feeling not just older and wiser, but more curious and interested in learning with a voracity they didn’t have as younger students. “This may seem silly, but I have just always wanted to learn more about health and helping people stay well,” they report excitedly to me. I assure them that isn’t silly at all.
In the last few years, particularly since the start of the pandemic, I have noticed many older women who are established in their careers but who are anxious to pivot to work that is more fulfilling and meaningful to them. I have had attorneys, physicians, and employees from big tech firms decide to make a professional change in an effort to contribute in some way to a better future by learning about health and wellness.
The most interesting experiences I have had related to older women students has been those women who come meet with me about enrolling, with their daughters leading the way. It is their daughters who explain the motivation to return to school. “She dedicated everything to getting us through school, and we all agree that now it is mom’s turn. She has always wanted to get a degree, and now she should focus on what she wants. We are all going to support her.” What gift could be more gratifying than having your children validate all you have done for them, and then turning to you to say: It’s your turn now.
Get in touch – Jennifer Todd