Here is my current situation: I am 45 years old — rapidly approaching 46, to be honest — and back in grad school full-time.
I’m studying a topic I absolutely love, theology, yet I’m unsure what I will do with the degree once I finish. I’m not alone in the uncertainty: more than half of the other first-year students I met at orientation were in the same situation, having felt a “call” to attend seminary, but kind of fuzzy on the whole “what kind of job do I want” specifics.
Sure, I’m a tad bit concerned I will graduate in three years with a degree that doesn’t make me any more qualified or employable than I was when I started. Given I have a master’s in music performance that I’m not using, this is a reasonable concern. I seem to be interested in fields of study that do not actually lead to income-producing careers …
Going back to school after a (very) long absence is jarring. I have experienced a couple of meltdowns/anxiety attacks/crises of confidence in these past few weeks. It turns out writing newspaper columns does not translate in a straightforward manner to writing 10-page academic papers. Similar to both, however, is me pacing around the house, absolutely paralyzed, with no idea of what to write. Also similar is that, without fail, something eventually gets written, and it is generally not completely awful.
I am learning several new things this time around in school — things I probably should have learned a long time ago. First, I finally learned to type this summer— the real, actual way, with home keys and everything. I had to use one of those online, free typing programs that I think my kids used in second grade. Embarrassing, I know. I somehow slipped into college not knowing how to type and just kept going. I’m not great at it: I look down at my hands far more than one should. Still, I am pretty proud of my new skill.
I am learning that perfectionism is overrated. As a long-entrenched disciple to the philosophy of perfectionism, I believed an A was the only acceptable grade; I kind of thought anything else was failing. This, it turns out, is simply not true. There are a whole range of other grades which are still OK, which you can receive and still earn your degree. Also — and this is shocking — no one really cares if you get all As. Huh. I think this might be the key to having a school-life balance, or sleeping more, or just staying sane.
I recently discovered you don’t have to do all the required reading for every single class. In fact, depending on how many classes one is taking, it might not even be possible. This is a hard thing to swallow for a recovering perfectionist. Just last week I had to do strategic reading after the tsunami of assigned chapters became truly overwhelming. I had to pick and choose and let some things go. Great as it would have been to be able to pour every last drop of that material into my little brain, I got enough of it. And then I moved forward, on to this week’s assignments.
I have learned I really dislike online classes. Perhaps I am too old for the medium; maybe the under-30s take to the online medium more easily, since they practically live online anyway. For me, I feel lost without a set class time or a lecture, and find online discussion threads a poor substitute for real time, in person dialogue. I am amazed by the students who remember to check back in with the thread throughout the week (astonishingly, the conversation is still going on five days later).
More than anything, I’ve learned how bored my brain has been, for a very long time. Possibly since the last time I was in school. I realize how stimulating reading and writing and discussion is, and how I start to come alive in learning spaces. I’m not sure what this means, exactly. Will I have to stay in school until I die? Work in an academic space? I’ll figure it out, I’m sure.
Learning new things — about the world and about ourselves — is wonderful. I want to encourage you, no matter your age, if you have been thinking about going back to school, whether for a single class or a whole degree, do it. You aren’t too old. The idea isn’t dumb. There is still time. Your brain and your spirit will thank you.
Elizabeth Eden is a mom, writer, yoga instructor and musician. She lives in Northgate with her big, beautiful, messy clan. In her free time, she enjoys wine, dystopian novels and documentaries on quantum physics. Send her ideas and feedback at email@example.com.