Why I Went Back to College
The critical lessons I learned, and what you need to know if you return to school
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
The answer is simple: With jobs in print media going the way of polar ice caps, I figured if things got too bad I could turn to teaching. I'd already taught a once-a-week magazine course at Emmanuel College in Boston, but I would need a master’s to join the faculty. That’s true at most universities and colleges, regardless of your work experience.
I was determined to achieve this goal, even if it would take a few years because I couldn't afford to quit working and become a full-time student. No doubt the Great and Powerful Oz would have told me to forget it — that as a seasoned journalist, I already knew everything I needed to know. But like the Tin Woodsman, I wanted that diploma to confirm it.
And the truth is, I didn’t know everything. I hadn't managed to keep up with the media’s changing technology. I had plenty to learn.
(MORE: Why You May Want to Get a College Certificate)
Overcoming the Initial Fear
I couldn’t have picked a scarier time to go back to school. When I applied to Boston University’s School of Communications, the economy was at its worst point in decades. Going into debt in the midst of a recession seemed crazy.
Yet that wasn’t my biggest fear about returning to school at 60. What made me apprehensive was my age. How would I explain my presence?
It wasn’t easy, especially since I was the only older student in any of the eight classes I took. Whenever I walked into a new class on the first day of the semester, I felt self-conscious. I sensed all those young eyes staring at me. It felt as though I could read my classmates' thoughts: Who was I? The professor? Somebody’s dad?
But that was just my paranoia. The students didn’t regard me as someone 35 years their senior. In fact, my age never came up. I think that’s because to young people, everyone past a certain age falls into the same category. You could be 40 or 90 for all they know. For my Intro to Media course, I wrote a blog post titled “Going Like Sixty.” A female student whose computer was next to mine asked what I meant by that. When I told her my age, she let out an incredulous shriek: “No way, man! No way!”
Here’s a vital tip: If you’re taking a course that requires technical know-how, and that’s not your strong point, sit close to the T.A. Trust me, it'll help. Take him or her to lunch.
Having sweated through my share of technical screw-ups, I found in the end that my ineptness didn’t really matter. I scored an “A” in every new media project I did. The high marks came from my years of work experience. My slide presentations always had a narrative. For a class final, I had to create a Web page that incorporated text, slides, maps, video, interviews and photos. Although I struggled with the technology while putting it together, I knew how to package and focus a story. Contrast that with one of my young classmates, who titled her final project “About Me.”
(MORE: When Does It Pay to Go Back to School in Midlife?)
Know When to Shut Up
To get the master’s degree, I had to complete some required writing courses. In a way, they were the hardest for me, because they required diplomacy — not with my fellow students, but with the professors. I’m not boasting when I say I know more about writing for newspapers and magazines than an inexperienced 30-year-old (who just happens to have a master’s degree). Too many times I found myself contradicting a professor’s advice, often using examples, like “When I was at People magazine. . .”
After I had hogged the spotlight once too often, a professor told me after class that I needn’t come anymore — she’d just give me the “A.”
Still, there were times when I couldn’t resist being a smart-ass. I had earned that right. I remember attending a slide show given by a young photography professor. With each iconic image, he’d ask for our impressions.
Although I was quite familiar with the images, I kept my mouth shut — until he showed an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite’s Half Dome. “How do you think he captured the light?” the professor wanted to know.
I raised my hand.
“If you sit someplace long enough you’ll eventually get what you want,” I told him.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” the professor asked.
“I’m just saying what Ansel Adams told me when I asked him that question.”
The Best Decision
As it turned out, going back to school was the best thing I could have done in a recession. It got me out of the house. Learning to do creative projects with new tools helped take my mind off my shrinking freelance career. Even though times were tough, I was having fun.
Spending time around young people kept me young. Their energy was infectious, and they liked being with me. They were enraptured by my stories about the famous people I’d interviewed, even though they’d never heard of most of them. When we had to pair up for a class project, I was always the first chosen.
And don’t get me wrong: I had some great professors, too. Thanks to them, my writing and teaching skills improved. One feature writing professor would analyze our stories by drawing diagrams of them on the blackboard. By creating a skeletal structure, we could see how the story flowed, and if all the components of a good story were there. In my teaching at Emmanuel College, I adapted that visual model. When I signed up for a writing workshop class at Boston University, I wondered how I could bear hearing my stories analyzed by 20-somethings. It was humbling when it turned out their criticisms were pretty astute. If they didn't understand something I wrote, chances are a lot of readers wouldn't either.
Although the technology did intimidate me at first, I did catch on. After a while, you begin to see patterns in how the various programs and systems work. I used the yellow "Dummies" books (HTML for Dummies, Web Design for Dummies, etc.) as my Cliff Notes. Because technology is always changing, much of what I learned a few years ago is already outdated. But that doesn't matter; what matters is knowing I can adapt. That's a great lesson.
At my age, I have lived enough years to know that things usually work out. Recessions come and recessions go. One of the benefits of getting older is that you finally realize what’s important, and it’s not always money.
Had I not gone back to school, I would not have had the confidence or skills to apply for a job editing articles on a website. That’s the job I have now.
For this recent college grad, the future looks rosy!
How to Find Time and Money to Go Back to School
Here are some of the ways that I made it happen:
- Grad school can cost up to $5,000 a class — it does at B.U. Because I wasn’t studying full time, I didn’t qualify for student loans. One way I cut costs was to take summer classes. Although they’re typically three hours a day, five days a week, they’re half price at many schools. Because most students are away in the summer, classes are smaller and more fun. I took a food writing class that had only five students. We elected to hold class one night each week at a different ethnic restaurant.
- As for finding time, again think summer classes. I always took two courses, one starting in June and the other in August. Night classes are another good option if your time is limited, since they’re usually held just one night a week. I took one every semester. (Online courses are, of course, another great option for the returning older student. At the time, Boston University's journalism program didn't offer them.)
- Because of my work experience, I was able to get several required classes waived. Colleges want your money. Don't hesitate to bargain.
- Each semester I was able to get an independent study course. For one of these classes I spent four months writing a paper about the Abolitionists of Boston. I didn't have to go to class, just arrange to meet every few weeks with the professor.