It’s never too late to go back to school, whether for career advancement or pleasure. Clearly, that fact isn’t lost on the 2,184,243 students ages 40 to 64 who did just that in 2009. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fall enrollment that year was up by more than 10 percent over 2007.
In a fascinating sign of our times, a number of “boomerang students” are finding themselves attending college at the same time as their children. To make the most of the experience, they need to be aware of certain issues. A parent in this circumstances needs to redefine her role; navigate the line between support and competition; juggle work, family and studies — and, often, deal with ageism. But, say students and experts alike, it's usually a win-win situation.
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Third Time’s the Charm
Back in 1996, Jenn Swan tried to juggle college and motherhood. “I was looking for the fastest path to a degree. It didn’t matter what it was, I just wanted that piece of paper that said I deserved a better job, better pay and more job satisfaction.” She and her husband moved from Colorado to Laramie, Wyo., for his work. When she was accepted into the University of Wyoming to study English, they moved into married-student housing with their daughter, Hilary, who spent half-days in kindergarten.
Swan credits the international flavor of their living quarters for helping build Hilary's character. And, she says, bringing her daughter with her to class fostered a positive view of learning. “It was one of the best things that could have happened. Hilary was at an age where her views of life were being formed, and suddenly we had neighbors from almost every state as well as from China, Russia, Japan, Mexico and Spain. It was eclectic, interesting and fun.”
Swan’s education was, however, abruptly interrupted a year later when her husband’s job ended and the family moved back to Colorado. There she enrolled at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, but after she'd attended just one semester, her husband found work in Nebraska, forcing Swan once more to put her dream on hold.
Today, at 49, Swan is back in college, and Hilary, who’s turning 23, is right by her side again — this time as a fellow student and sometime study partner. Not only are they an academic success story, they’re part of that multigenerational-learning trend.
Hilary was the first to enroll at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where she’s studying political science and working part-time (her father also contributes financially). Two years later Swan got divorced, applied and got accepted at Lincoln to study fine art and graphic design, and moved into her daughter's apartment.
“Hilary was [a sophomore] when I decided to go too. I really didn’t want to impact her experience,” says Swan, who's paying her expenses with scholarships, Pell grants and student loans. “I am so honored to have been able to share my education with her. I couldn’t have done this without an incredible amount of support from her and my mother, both of whom have been amazing and loving, and unfailing in their belief in me.”
“I never thought of it as her following me — it was more about us going to the same university,” says Hilary, “We’re in different departments, and we have different schedules. When I do see her on campus, it’s a happy coincidence!”
With their mutual respect and shared values about keeping a neat, organized home, they have little difficulty cohabitating. “The one thing we have to do every week is compare our class, work and social schedules so that we know who has to be home and when to let our dog out!” says Swan.
The Ups and Downs of College Life
But college life hasn’t been a breeze. Swan got off to a rocky start. “At first a lot of people didn't want to sit by her in class or talk to her, which made me angry,” says Hilary. “I expected a little more maturity from other students. Now, after a year, there are more positive instances than negative ones, possibly because more students have gotten to know her.”
The mother-daughter team socializes and studies together — they even have a few mutual friends. Are they competitive with each other? “Absolutely not!” says Hilary. “We share our successes and don't try and get better grades than the other all the time.”
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Finding Time (and Energy) for School
Victoria Venezia was thrilled to earn her B.A. in Women and Gender Studies from William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., this past January. But, she freely admits, going to college is easier said than done. “I returned to college in 2005 in my late 40s,” she says. “I was nervous about being around much younger students. My first course was online, so there was no judgment, but when I went into the classroom, I definitely felt old and a little out of place. Some students were welcoming and helpful, though, as were the professors, who appreciated that I was there to learn.”
Venezia’s daughter, Tia, was a high school junior when her mother first went to college, and wound up following her to Paterson and earning a degree in elementary education. She marvels at her mom’s academic accomplishments — all the more impressive because she was holding down a full-time job in the university's registrar's office. “Even when she came home tired after working all day and still had a ton of work to do, she always made a point of coming to talk to me about my day. She never used her age as an excuse to be selfish and worry just about herself, even though she had a lot on her plate.”
Early on, the two enrolled in the same Saturday morning (required) math class, where the professor noticed they shared a last name. “Mother and daughter?” he asked.
“And he started calling me Mom in the classroom!” Venezia says with a laugh.
For her, there was another side to going back to school later in life. “I went into menopause,” she says. “When the professor would call on me, I’d get so flustered it would bring on a hot flash. I did everything to ignore the sweat dripping down my face and how red I was becoming.”
Even with the hefty discount Venezia received from her university job, paying her own tuition on top of Tia's was a financial strain. But they economized. "And my husband was really supportive,” she says. “He’d have dinner waiting for me whenever I had an exam.”
It took almost seven years to graduate, but Venezia says it was well worth the struggle. “It kept me young and kept my eyes open. I saw things from the students’ point of view as well as from an adult's. Other students would invite me to study with them, which always made me feel younger. It's funny: Sometimes I comment to my husband that I wish I remembered more from college because it was so interesting. And he always tells me that I remember more than I realize.”
Online Versus Classroom Learning
For Susan Cooke, a 51-year-old nurse manager, sending her only child, Tara, off to college was traumatic. So she decided to follow her daughter’s lead and get her MSN in Nursing Leadership via online learning at the same school, Drexel University, in Philadelphia.
“With Tara being away at school, I needed a new focus,” Cooke says. “Plus, I knew I needed to advance my own education to progress to the next level in nursing administration.”
While the two don’t physically study together, they do commiserate about the pressures of a college education. “I have a demanding work schedule, and she has challenging coursework,” says Cooke. “My pressure is more related to meeting paper deadlines, while my daughter’s comes from exams and countless hours spent studying. We take turns giving pep talks. Our mother-daughter bond translates to ‘We will always be there for each other.’”
The one shared campus activity they insist on is attending at least one Drexel basketball game together each year. “I get the discounted student rate of $5 a ticket,” says Cooke. “It cracks up Tara and her roommates when I show my ID at the door. She’s happy to be with me, but she refuses to let me sit in the student section known as the DacPac, which is okay with me.”
Tips for Parents and Children Studying Together
Stephen F. Gambescia, Ph.D, MBA, an associate professor at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions in Philadelphia, offers the following tips to make the most of a multigenerational studying experience.
For the Parent Student:
- Be cool about your age. Everyone knows you’re older — don’t bring unnecessary attention to it. And acting like you know more is definitely inappropriate (even if it’s true).
- Respect the school’s rules. You may be a parent, but rules are rules and they apply equally to everyone. Going over the head of a teacher who’s younger than you, for example, won’t get your problem solved — it could actually have the opposite effect.
- Keep expectations realistic. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get straight As. It’s probably been a long time since you seriously hit the books, so give yourself time to ramp up to speed. And once you do, be on your guard not to become too competitive with your child.
- Don’t throw a pity party. Should personal challenges arise, it’s okay to share them with faculty and administrators, but remember: Younger students are struggling with their own issues, which feel equally overwhelming to them, so don't expect people to treat you as a special exception.
- Let your kid be a kid! College is a rite of passage for young people. Continue to be the parent, not the friend at college. Never overstay your welcome. Go with your instinct. If something feels awkward, it probably is. On the other side of the coin, if they're living under your roof, don't let them off the hook from doing their chores. You're in the same boat!
For the Child Student:
- Respect your differences. Everyone has his or her own style, so don’t get upset if Mom doesn’t want to study with you in the coffee shop, which to her may seem like Grand Central Terminal.
- See your parent as a student. Don’t put your mother in the position of evaluating your work or commenting on how you did. Let the faculty do that; that’s what you’re paying them to do. And remember, with Mom or Dad back in school, they need your help and support more than ever.
Leslie Andrea Westbrook is a California-based writer and the author of A Century of Success: The 100-Year History of Santa Barbara City College. Additional reporting by MaryAnn Cooper.