Reading: Why I Returned to University at Age 44

Personal Growth

Why I Returned to University at Age 44

You’re never too old to learn something new -- Or pursue a lifelong dream

By Julie Whitehead

One morning, I was proctoring a paper-writing session with the composition class I was teaching at Hinds Community College in Pearl, Mississippi, and I was looking up the next week’s class materials online. When I finished, I went to the Google homepage and idly typed in “Mississippi online MFA.”

Going back to school to earn a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing had long been a dream of mine. When I went to graduate school in 1990, I thought earning an English degree with a creative writing emphasis would be enough to teach creative writing on the college level, but I turned out to be wrong. I also had a Bachelor of Arts in communication with a journalism emphasis that enabled me to be a freelance journalist, but I needed something a little more stable as my children got older, so I turned to a community college to teach composition.  

I had heard about programs that promised online MFAs but had never found anything that seemed to be the right fit. Either I wasn’t familiar with the university offering the program, or it required me to be on campus for a month at a  time, and with three young children, I couldn’t rationalize being away that long. I knew one university in Mississippi offered an MFA program, but it was residential, and I could not uproot my family. 

Such practical matters are important to consider when starting back to school all over again, as you decide whether to go back to college to continue your education in your field or to reinvent yourself in another.

My life changed when I saw the results of that Google search. It pulled up a press release announcing that a university in my state was offering a low-residency MFA starting that fall, and the deadline to apply was closing in one month.

I read up on the program, my hands shaking as I scrolled. I couldn’t believe it! The university was just two hours away and was offering a flexible residency, where you could schedule to be on campus just twice during your coursework. The university was highly regarded; in fact, it was where my oldest daughter had chosen to continue her education a year earlier. I was ecstatic.

I knew I would need to talk to my husband and figure out the logistics, and I knew I had to talk to the program director to get some questions answered beforehand. But I felt down deep in my heart that this program was going to be part of my future if I could somehow work it out.

Hidden expenses such as textbooks, an upgraded computer with a webcam for online conferencing, and travel expenses to on-campus classes needed to be addressed as well.

I called the director and then exchanged a flurry of emails with him; I talked it over with my husband. We decided that I should go the slow route to graduation in order to balance my other responsibilities — working and organizing our family life. I would take one class per semester and stretch the experience out as long as possible — in my case, six years. 

I sent in the required application forms and held my breath. The answer came back: “We would be honored to have you in our program,” the acceptance letter said.  

A few unexpected obstacles erupted. Since I would be on campus for intermittent stretches, I had to show proof of immunizations for measles, mumps, and rubella. My doctor was long dead, and I didn’t have my vaccination card proving I had gotten the shots as a baby. I had to be immunized all over again through my local health department.

I also had to adjust my expectations of myself a bit. I found I had a harder time concentrating on my studies than I’d had when I was young and studying was my sole focus. 

Other worries evaporated. I had been concerned about being in a program full of twentysomethings. But our program had a mix of ages, career histories, and so perspectives on life.  

I was easily able to adjust to the rigors of academia by doing it one class at a time. And completing the residency requirements turned out to not be a problem: my family worked as a team to make sure that everyone was taken care of during those seven- and ten-day trips.    

Today, I am taking my last class before I start writing my thesis, which is as daunting as it is exciting. I have made so many new friends. And the knowledge I have gained about the writing field has been so valuable that I finally feel equipped to do what I love most. I have gone from writing into the void on my personal blog about bipolar disorder to publishing stories that audiences can read and care about in places I couldn’t have imagined five years ago.

6 Tips to Make Returning to School Work for You

If you’ve always dreamed about returning to school to catch up on opportunities you feel like you missed, I say just go for it.  

Funding is often the largest issue for a woman going back to school. I was blessed enough to have saved a sizable amount of money that I could invest in my dream. Here are some tricks you may not have thought of:

1. Scholarships aren’t just for 18-year-olds. Explore what scholarships your school of choice has available. Ask about other entities such as foundations and charitable organizations that actually exist to fund nontraditional students; the school should be able to point you toward the ones they work with.

2. Check out online degrees. Often they’re cheaper to obtain than those that require residence because room and board is not built into the price.

3. Assistantships offer a common way to get your tuition waived. You are asked to teach a certain number of classes, either on your own or with another professor, in return for a tuition waiver and a salary. Note: This option is often offered for the programs that require residential attendance.

4. If your field is more research-oriented, examine potential fellowships. A fellowship gives you institutional support while you work on your research project and take classes toward your degree.

5. Check with your employer. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement programs if the degree is meant to advance your knowledge in your field — sometimes even if it’s not. For example, Starbucks has a tuition reimbursement program that syncs up with a particular online college if you are willing to go to it.

6. Look for student loans. The key here is to make sure your degree will pay for itself. Will you be able to make enough money with your new degree to justify the loan’s terms and conditions?

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