Michael Barnett sold his business to stay home and take care of his wife when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He realized that some of the people that made the most difference in his wife's life were caregivers and nurses and after she died he decided to pursue a career in nursing.
"I had a lot of apprehension. I'm 55. I graduated from college in 1976 in pre-med. I never really liked school. But, I had a goal in mind and something I wanted to do," Barnett says.
Barnett is among many returning adult students increasingly showing up on college campuses and in classrooms. But making the decision to return to school beyond the traditional age for college students can be a fear factor for some.
Barnett, who completed a nursing degree, says his first class at Harper College in Palatine had 80 students -- himself and 79 girls age 22.
"You are in a sea of young people and have different interests, different goals and different experiences," Barnett says.
Despite that he felt like he fit in. He says it would have been a mistake and fake to try to be "one of the guys or girls" but found himself in the role of peer mentor and tutor. Barnett got involved in study groups, socialized with the other students and became friends with them as well as some of the professors who are closer to his age, he says.
"You have to find what your niche is," Barnett says. Barnett says, in addition to earning the degree, he benefited from helping other students learn.
"I'm a firm believer that when you teach you learn twice. I'm learning the material better myself," says Barnett, now an oncology nurse in a facility dedicated to the care of cancer patients.
With an interest in health care and a mom who returned to school in her 40s for a nursing degree, Jim Owen, 48, knew the direction he wanted to take to get a nursing degree and continue into a surgical program.But not having been to school in years Owen says the decision was a bit "nerve-wracking."
"It was probably one of the hardest decisions I've made and a dually tough decision to fold the business I poured my life and blood into and jumping into the unknown," Owen says.
His actual experiences have been much better than the anticipation.
"One of the neatest things is when you are older you go in with a totally different mindset. It's more about your life than following some hopes of others," he says.
Owen found there were students a little older than himself as well as a lot younger.
"I've been totally comfortable. Age doesn't make a difference to me," Owen says.Miles Lee found himself working in advertising after earning an MBA in his late 20s."It wasn't as professionally satisfying as I wanted it to be," he says. As he headed into his 40s, Lee says he began taking stock of his career.
"I didn't want my professional legacy to be that I made a few clients happy for a short amount of time," he says.
So last fall after being laid off it was the kick Lee says he needed to enroll in the Master of Arts in Education program at Dominican University in River Forest."It was an eye opening experience. I hadn't been to school for 10 to 12 years," Lee says. "Everything is electronic now -- even registration. That was something new that I needed to learn. It was a challenge."
Lee says he didn't have an issue working alongside students 20 years younger than himself and has found it interesting to gain their perspective on life.
"There is that generation gap," he says. "I remember Watergate as we were going through it and they're like 'what is Watergate?'"
Lee says while he hopes he has been able to offer something to the students through his career and life experiences he has gained help from the "digital natives" who have grown up using computers and have been able to assist him along the way."I've enjoyed the class work and the camaraderie with other students more than I thought I would," Lee says.
The flip side
Offering another perspective, Patrick Carney, a traditional age student at Harper College has had three classes with adult learners and has benefited from each, he says.
In an economics class he benefited from hearing the adult's perspective on issues related to unemployment and getting back into the work force and was intrigued by a man in his Spanish class who returned to school to learn the language to teach his young daughters. Carney says he brought a lot to class discussions on topics such as immigration.
"It was interesting to get his perspective because it was more worldly than ours," Carney says.
In an acting class Carney met a man who worked as a waiter and saved up to return to school. Carney didn't think he would be able to relate to him because "he is a whole lot older" but found a common love of sports was a starting place for their conversations that helped them work together on a production.
Carney says he was nervous when he first learned that he would be in classes with older adults and remembers thinking 'I don't want to go to school with my mom.' But now that he has had experience with older adult students he now encourages them to get more involved on campus.
"It gave a whole new experience and world view for me," he says.
Carney served on the Student Senate with an adult learner and, in addition to both being Republican, Carney says the adult perspective was helpful when considering topics such as saving the school money because the older student brought the experience of running a household and how to budget finances.
"It was really cool to see that," Carney says.
Carney says he thinks adults can also benefit from learning alongside younger students.
"I think it helps them dream more," Carney says. "We don't have limits on ourselves as much as adult learners. They say things like 'odds are' and we don't think about odds. If you want to do something nothing is standing in your way except you."
A teaching tool
Ben Freville, assistant professor of education at Dominican University, says there are a lot of adults returning to the classroom.
"There really is a pretty good mix of younger and older students," he says.
As an instructor, Freville says he finds the mix of generations brings a balance to the classroom.
"I find some of my younger students tend to gravitate to older students and look to them for guidance," Freville says.
Teaching a course on integrating technology in the classroom Freville says older students often look to their younger counterparts for assistance with computers especially since the school of education requires students to build an electronic portfolio and use Blackboard as a course management tool.
Nancy Wajler, director of adult learning at Harper College, says being the oldest student is a common fear of many adults considering a return to school.
"Once they get one or two classes under their belt their confidence soars," she says.Adults are not just fearful of the age difference, but of balancing responsibilities such as jobs, family and a busy calendar as well as wondering if they still have the skills or know the technology well enough.
Harper has dedicated an entire department to adult learners from academic counselors to coaches and assistants.
Returning students have the choice of taking courses on campus or within a dedicated adult learning center where they are in cohort groups with others in similar age ranges and stages. Wajler says the choice is really based on personality and comfort level. While one student may thrive in a setting with other adults on a fast track another may want to be in a classroom where they take more time with the material.
Younger students can benefit from the experience of older adults and see them as role models who are focused and able to balance multiple responsibilities. Older students can benefit from the spunk and freshness of younger students and may even get some help with technology, she says.
"There area benefits on both sides," Wajler says.
While Wajler says the average age of returning students is in their 30s they have students of all ages.
According to Sharon Page, an instructor in Harper College's Management Program, the past two years have brought more of a mix of ages to her classroom.
"I believe there are many reasons for this including the economy, unemployment, career changes, degree and certification advancements, the desire to gain a competitive advantage, and the need for employees to stay current in various disciplines," she says.
Page says her courses involve team activities such as resolving case study issues and management crisis that allows everyone to bring their ideas to the table.
" I'm amazed at how quickly the age barrier disappears in the learning process and the amount of respect that grows among the students, ultimately creating a positive and supportive environment," she says.Page too has seen younger students gravitate toward older adult students and those adult students happy to provide help.
"On the other hand, the innocence of youth brings great questions for the adult students, making the adults think deeper about the scope of their work and giving them some new ideas. As an example, traditional students think more in terms of a global approach, offering adult learners new perspectives," Page says.
Move beyond fear
Barnett encourages other adults to follow their interest in returning to school.
"Don't let fear rule you," Barnett says adding he gained skills and learned he still had enough brainpower to be a student. He says he learned he has more common sense and problem solving skills than his first go-around at college and both helped him be successful.
Owen suggests not waiting but moving forward. He says his mom taught him you are never too old to learn.Lee agrees adults should not let concerns about their age hold them back.
"If you feel you need to make a change do it," he says. "We live in a country where you can. You don't have to do the same old thing. If you are not happy change it up."Lee says, however, to take time to really consider what career would bring happiness and fulfillment.
Freville says returning adults can find support in many areas from technology to using the library and resources, study skills and paper writing.Freville advises adult returning students not to fear.
"It takes time to get into it but with time and support older students are very successful," he says.