When I was in high school some 30 years ago, we had to take two years of a language, and against all advice, I chose the less practical French over Spanish.  You see, I was going to live in Paris someday, not Mexico or Spain.  At 17, I left high school and headed out into the world, determined to work my way up any ladder.  Smart but without a college degree, I did not get beyond the borders of California, executive assistant to others who did have degrees.  My “way up” turned out to be a Princeton-grad husband.  My way back down was a divorce.

Grand. Intimidating. Thank you for welcoming me, UC Berkeley.

As we co-raised our son, I noted how college for young Harry was never a “possibility” – it was a given.  When he quite naturally began his college search, an empty nest loomed ahead of me, and a debris field of unrealized dreams lay behind.  But at 45 years old, I realized that, hey, to quote Monty Python, “I’m not dead yet.”  I could not live life over, but I could get pieces of the dreams I’d missed.  Not a whole cake maybe, but at least bites of it.  That would do.

I decided to become a college graduate myself—to become what I wanted, not marry it or assist it.  An idea I had long held that college was impossible because I had not excelled in high school was, in fact, a fallacy. There are no requirements to enter community college.  I took the placement test, found that I’d need some remedial math but no remedial English, and waded into the sea of education. Today, as I approach 50, I am a junior-year undergrad at UC Berkeley, the top public university in the country—an institution I never could have hoped to attend out of high school.  What’s more, as an independent student who is (ahem) less than affluent, my costs are covered, and have been all through.

So what is it like, at this age, to go to class with kids who could be your own offspring? In the beginning, in spite of my determination, I felt some vague sense that this was humiliating. I dressed better than necessary and pretended I was a professor as I walked across campus those first few weeks, comforted that no one would know otherwise until I took a seat in a class.  But I soon noticed that there were others my age in the student section, and that the kids and professors were in fact welcoming. I have only ever heard, “It’s so great that you’re doing this!”

There were a few fears I had to overcome initially, such as group projects and science lab with an assigned partner. I imagined the student who was saddled with me would roll his or her eyes and look desperately at their young, cute counterparts.  But as it turned out, there was almost a desire to have me. I was obviously enthusiastic and, unlike many younger students, I had done the reading. You might almost say I was popular!  Often at lunch, a student would speak to me as if they knew me and I would have to say, “I’m so sorry, but which class are we in together?”  After a life of being a somewhat invisible assistant/wife/mother, I stood out like a sore thumb—but in a good way.  Fellow students wanted me to help them toward an A, and professors thanked the gods for their mature students, wishing everyone could be like us.

After clearing my early hurdles at the community college, I started to realize that this path I was on could well lead to a transfer for a bachelor’s degree at some of the finest colleges out there.  I began to get mail from Columbia University and UCLA – I was on their lists! Eager to create a worthy transcript, I thought I’d better get myself into a leadership role. I joined the honor society, and when they had officer elections, I ran for secretary. And won. After all, who among my competition could top my credentials? I thought this would be a strictly clerical position, but being an officer meant making t-shirts, planning social activities, and helping to run the induction ceremonies. It was here that I learned how to belong and participate at my age, without becoming that lady who gives the kids’ parents the creeps: When invited, by all means attend the extracurricular activities – they really want you to come – but leave a bit early so the younger set can play Twister with their own kind.

At UC Berkeley, when I first arrived, I was inundated with emails urging me, as a new student, to join a sorority, come to the pajama ice cream social, and to audition for the student-run production of The Vagina Monologues.  I knew better than to intrude upon the social (and sometimes sexual) awakenings of students away from home for the first time. I must admit, I had a few thoughts that this university was something I should just get through—in one end and out the other, without touching a thing but the textbooks—but before long, opportunities presented themselves that were perfect for me.  I became an Office of Undergrad Admissions ambassador, blogging on the student site so that I could speak to prospective mature transfer students and urge them to come ahead. I met several other mature students—you can’t help but say hello, you have something so profound in common—and we meet for lunch once a week, applauding one another’s test scores or paper topics. (And mind you, I am not the oldest among us!) Also, when I was offered a work-study job, which would keep my student loans low, I was hired to work in the chancellor’s office.  Besides all this good stuff, there is no age limit on attending the football games or the theater department’s plays, though there are student discounts.

Perhaps my greatest fear, though, as I looked ahead at all I would learn on my way through UC Berkeley, was whether or not I was smart enough to do this. I had been losing my car keys for years now, and occasionally I even forgot my dog at a friend’s house. How on earth could I remember books’ worth of information and take the same tests as some of the top whiz kids in the state and country?  Well, as it happens, our old brains are actually full of something handy called perspective. The information in the books isn’t so much new as expanding on things we’ve picked up along the way.  Political science is one thing for kids who have voted only once and quite another for adults who remember watching Nixon’s resignation on TV. And psychology? Don’t get me started. Often I must sit on my hands so that I don’t raise them too much. I want to give the young folks a chance.

Not that I don’t envy them sometimes. To have done this when young would have meant dorm life camaraderie and career tracks with a nice early start. But to do it now means an apartment with real furniture and no hangovers. To do it now is to do it with a solid knowledge of who one is. There was no floundering for me over what major I should undertake. I knew: Psychology, focusing on creativity and the lives of women. And once at university, I even decided to double-major. In French.

Because, you know what? My last semester will be spent in Paris. I will live there for four months through the study-abroad program. For the course I’m in, they give students their own little bachelor apartments, at the top of old stairs, in the heart of the city, and the classes are in French, at the Sorbonne. My café au lait awaits.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I graduate, but I’m letting that unfold. I have learned a lot about how to work and produce, and I expect this network I inhabit will extend. Possibilities are endless, it seems, compared to when I left high school in search of ladders to climb. In fact, now I have a whole career center to help me. I will be supported by my own alma mater. And wherever I end up, this time I will get myself there.

If you are considering going back to school, don’t hesitate. You will enjoy it more than you used to enjoy school, and you will belong—really belong—to something vast and populated.  Your life will fill with possibilities you never imagined, and you can still live some of those dreams you had in mind a long time ago. It’s  not too late, not ever, for this.

Next: Tips for over-40 women on going back to school.

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  • Rossty February 10, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Found via a “College at 50” Google search… What a wonderful story… and your story, is my dream…

    Successful for 25+ years in the business world and yet, my heart still longs for the college degree/experience I never had… If I could, I’d walk away from it all and enroll tomorrow.

  • Kent Williams July 14, 2012 at 3:26 am

    Great! This is the inspiration I need to do this! My daughter was accepted to Berkeley this year and she is now encouraging me to go back to college. I left College of Marin in ’82 with almost two years in, and I’ve regretted that I never finished college. Now even at age 50 I want to make a positive change in my life. Thank you for your insights. KW

  • Tanya January 17, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    At age 55, while I was working at a university in NYC, I decided to get a Masters Degree in International Affairs. It was after September 11th, and I felt something happened in the world that I was not aware of and wanted to know about. I also was working in education and technology, on the internet. I felt that the global reach of education was fast approaching and that this degree would give me a good foundation of understanding into other global perspectives.

    Though I was an excellent student during my undergraduate days, that was nearly 40 years ago. I was terrified that I wouldn’t remember how to study, couldn’t retain the material, etc. I decided to take a course before I formally enrolled, one that I could include in the degree program. If, after I took the course, I thought I could handle more, I’d officially apply and enroll.

    Much to my surprise, I found that age really seasoned my approach to learning – I could look at the world, at texts, at arguments and discussions more critically, I could draw on having lived through past history that affected current states of affairs. And I re-discovered how much I enjoyed researching and writing, something I hadn’t done in a long time. Access to scholarly journals opened worlds for me – I learned new ‘languages’ in reading articles by scholars. I also saw anew how classes were taught, how libraries were expanding digital collections, how students felt and thought of their world.

    In all, it was the best thing I did at that time – it opened my mind, enlarged my perspective and gave me renewed confidence in the capacity of my brain to still perform. I also felt engaged in the world at a time when many of my friends were considering retiring.

    Now, a few years later, I’m working in global education, with faculty and students from all over the world. I had some terrible disappointments during this recession but I’ve kept my spirits alive by all that I’ve learned and all that has come my way because of it – and returning to school is the reason.

    Thanks for a great insightful article, Jennifer – I’m living proof of all you’ve written.

  • b. elliott January 16, 2012 at 10:32 am

    I finished your story with tears in my eyes! How wonderful and what a gifted writer you are. Thank you for sharing.