Every once in a while, someone asks me why I went back to school at an “advanced” age and what it was like? Here are some musings.
My mother and aunt Lena were sisters-in-law, close friends, and both born in 1908. Lena married late, never had children, and lived to age ninety-three. My uncle Eddie also lived to be ninety-three. My mom died at ninety-five and did pretty well until ninety-two. Although my dad died at eighty-three, I did have some longevity on both sides of my family.
At age sixty-four and seeing all of this, I began to wonder what to do with a potential thirty or so years. I didn’t see myself as a retire-to-some-warm-climate person. So, I thought about what would make me feel dissatisfied if I didn’t try.
It didn’t take long to figure out. “Get a Ph.D.,” popped into my head. The idea was stubborn. For years, I thought about going back to school, but worried about family and work obligations, and, of course, money. But I was unexpectedly serene with the challenge and ready. “It’s not too late,” I kept telling myself. Ironically, my paternal grandmother’s life ended at sixty-four – the same age that I began a major new chapter.
So, I took the halting first steps: applied, got accepted, and began the doctoral program in 2002. My goal was to finish by the time I was seventy.
Those graduate school years were not calm. I was caregiver for my mother, helped my uncle Eddie, and took over some responsibility for other relatives including a disabled cousin. My mother died in 2003 (Lena had already died). Both of my kids got married (one in Japan), two of my three grandkids were born and I baby-sat one day a week. I earned a living as a consultant almost full-time, went to class, and studied. I am not sure how I did it, but I never had any doubt that I would finish. I passed my dissertation defense in 2008.
Was it hard going back to school at an older age? “Not really.” In fact, it was easier in many ways. I was a more focused and better student than I ever had been. I plodded through the coursework, struggled to determine my specific area of research, and drafted and re-drafted dissertation manuscripts. I worried about getting through statistics given that I was an un-paralleled math dummy.
What I learned was that I had more in me than I ever knew or acknowledged. I discovered that I could write. My years of living had given me the confidence and maturity to reject things that I deemed unimportant, and concentrate on what would get me closer to my goal. I met wonderful people and it didn’t matter that I was the oldest person in my cohort.
As I look back on this, I see that the stuff of ordinary existence – earning a living, taking care of loved-ones, being there for kids and grandkids – was going to happen no matter what else I did. Going back to school gave me the vehicle and the strength to figure out how to do all of that while achieving some life aspiration. The most important motivator was having that clear, unshakable goal – “Get a Ph.D.”
Pursuing this degree was one of the best things that I ever did. It wasn’t the degree per se, but the fulfillment of my own challenge.
It’s not for everyone, this going back to school, but so many of us have dreams both big and small. We may be rueful if we don’t try to realize some of them. If something resonates, stirs the spirit, or sits out there as an unachieved dream – try it!! It is never too late!