Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Degree of Courage: Advice for Adults Returning to School

I started my undergraduate degree at the fairly traditional age of 19. But my economic situation necessitated working for a living and I was limited to one class at a time. Eventually I married and started a family, putting the thought of finishing that degree farther and farther away. Finally I found myself at age 35 with no degree and a resume with a big hole in it. I had lots of experience in non-profit marketing, but every ad would list "college degree required." Luckily I discovered distance learning programs and finally finished my bachelor's degree at the age of 37 in the Adult Degree Program (then part of Norwich University). But I remember being embarrassed by my lack of a college degree. I felt it was unfinished business and I was smarter than that...wasn't I?

But with time working in higher education I've come to realize that my story is more and more typical. In the past, adult college students were considered “non-traditional.” This is no longer true. In fact, we have become the fastest growing demographic in colleges across the country. Once I was empowered with finally earning my bachelor's degree, I was hooked. I went on to earn two master's degrees and a certificate in writing children's picture books. With the current economic climate being what it is, I've been thinking of many people who are in a similar situation and find themselves needing to return to school and build up their resumes and experience. But what if they're facing challenges like I did? Working, kids, community obligations. Or even struggling with a disability or, just like me, the thought of doing math makes them feel as though they are going to vomit.

I wanted to get some advice for those who are taking this kind of plunge. Practical advice, advice about things you might not feel comfortable talking about with an admissions counselor you don't know on the other end of the phone or via email. So I turned to Anne Connor to get some answers.

Anne has been working in higher education and educational counseling for many years and specializes in helping adults who are returning to school. She's done ESOL, disability and ADA counseling, as well as advising people on things like time management and study skills. She knows what it takes for people like me to succeed in this quest. Anne runs her own business called Taproot Academic Coaching, an online enterprise in which she offers a full spectrum of support for adult learners returning to school.

Anne, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing an adult returning to college these days?

There are actually a number of top challenges, one being the indecision – what degree should I get and at what college? What is it I really want to study? For an adult learner, this question relates to his or her passion, but that is usually countered by the very real concern of is it going to pay off, relating to job viability. Once someone can bring focus to the "what" and "where", then there are the financial considerations, the how am I going to afford it? Often these three top considerations – the what, where and how - play off against each other.

When an adult learner gets past these larger issues, which often take some time to research and process, then there’s the next block – pure unadulterated fear! The adult hears the inner voice of the critic with low self-esteem, “I don’t have what it takes to be a student again; I’m a crummy writer; I can’t do tests; I won’t be able to keep up.” Adult students will often say to me with terror in their voices, “I don’t even remember how to do footnotes!” It’s ironic because footnotes really aren’t used anymore in higher education having been replaced by in-text citations, but who knows that if one hasn’t been in school for the last twenty years?

The other piece that comes into play for the adult student nervous about returning to school is, “How will I make the time in my life to attend classes when I’m already so busy and not even attending school? The life-balancing act comes into play and adult students can use some support and coaching about how to prepare for their return to school; also they need to re-think organizing time and resources to be successful. Once they’re actually back in the classroom, or even before that, adult students will benefit from a refresher course on effective academic skills such as analytic reading skills, effective note-taking, academic writing and critical thinking, especially as these relate to an individual’s distinct learning approach.

What would you say to an adult considering a return to college?

Each of us has a preferred approach to learning, organizing and producing academic material. There is no one cookie-cutter method that works for everyone, yet earlier schooling would have many of us believe that there is only one way to write a good essay or take notes or find the “right” answer that they think the teacher wants to hear. Adult learners believe that if it didn’t work before there’s a really good chance that it won’t work again – “it” being the whole school experience. The joy of being an adult learner is that you get to employ your best strengths in accessing the education that you choose now. If the writing approach that you learned in high school doesn’t work for you in college, there are other writing strategies that you can learn that will work better for you as an adult. That reading habit of skimming indiscriminately that got you into trouble again and again in college the last time you tried it in your twenties might actually work really well for you now that you are a busy adult juggling many things – with a little focus of course. The point is that as an adult learner you have developed skills in your varied life experiences that have naturally prepared you to be a stronger learner today than ever before. You are more aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you know what you are interested in, and you are motivated to succeed at your goals in a way that a traditional-aged student is not.

Okay, I have to share my biggest anxiety, one that I know is shared with most adults who have been out of school for some time. What about the math? I have terrible math anxiety! How can I possibly return to that humiliation?

You’re right; this is one anxiety that is shared by many if not most people. What I would say is that it’s more about the fear of the fear than the fear of the math itself! Most adults, with a little review, are capable of doing the minimum amount of math that’s required for graduation from most college programs. There are also tutors and learning support programs available to you for support – and maybe you are more likely as an adult to get that help than you were as a younger student. Teens usually think asking for help is uncool – by the time we are adults, we know the importance of asking for help, getting support and working with each other. There are also many college programs, like the progressive colleges with which I am most involved, where you can show your ability to understand and do math as it relates to hands on-experiences or study math in the context of other content areas – such as sacred geometry in nature, or geometric forms in art, or creating charts and graphs in social sciences, or creating budgets and accounting sheets for a business enterprise. Don’t let math be the thing that stops you – you can do it!

What about someone with a learning disability? What resources are available to them?

Quite a good number of adults who return to school have a disability of some kind, whether it is a learning disability, an attention disorder, a physical or psychiatric disorder and again, students should not let that stop them from earning a degree. By law, an educational institution must provide reasonable accommodations to a student with a disability – accommodations which, in effect, should level the playing field for those whose disabilities impair their academic functioning to a certain degree. In addition, many schools have disability offices or learning support departments with trained specialists who can help students with disabilities learn strategies specific to their strengths that will increase their chances of success.

In my experience, many adults returning to college after many years may suspect they have a disability, especially if their children are now being diagnosed with special learning needs. Some adult learners have no idea they have a learning disability but once they start to flounder, and if they are referred to a learning specialist who can help them look at the possible reasons for weak skills, they may get the help they need. Assessment of and knowledge about learning disabilities and ADHD has come a long way over the years. Many adults returning to school now did not have the benefit of evaluation and assessment when they were in school before. Therefore many adults today learn that they have a disability and finally can begin to understand they are not “stupid” or “lazy” or any of a number of other things they may believe about themselves as a result of growing up with an undiagnosed learning disability. They can reframe their sense of self with a diagnosis, get the academic support they need, and successfully earn the degree they desire. I have witnessed many, many stories of educational struggle and success working with adult students with disabilities in every field imaginable.

Last piece of advice?

Ask for help, ask for help, and ask for help! Educators understand that adult learners have needs and abilities that are totally different from those of traditional-age college learners: you work at a different pace; you are juggling different demands; and you have experiential bodies of knowledge that are vast compared to younger learners. As a result, programs geared toward the adult learner are structured to support these differences, and they employ professionals specifically to help adults be successful. You can talk to career counselors, faculty or an academic coach to help you make decisions or work with instructors who understand the demands of juggling career, family and school. In addition, adult students can access academic support from the learning support office that most colleges have or again from a tutor or academic coach. An adult student doesn’t need to struggle alone; be sure to ask for help. You’ll get it.


Anonymous said...

Timely column, Ann.

"[F]ound myself at age 35 with no degree."

At age 35? Shit, at 51 I realized my employment possibilities were nil, and I knew the part-time work I had would be eliminated.

So I went back: first one class, then two per semester. Took almost 4 years, so I got a BS 40 years after graduating from high school.

The upside was I've been and will be employed, at least for now. At a similar age, my wife went back, got her BA and went on to get her MA, this summer. She too will be employed.

Yes, both of us were "old", empty-nesters, but I know an immigrant mexicana with 3 small daughters, who helped her husband run his business, while she accomplished the same. She's now employed.

There's no guarantees--my son's got a BS and has been unemployed for a year--but going back to get a degree is a lot less challenging than trying to live on part-time or unemployment checks.

Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

Wow, thanks Rudy. I love hearing about people who have done this work as well. I talked to a friend yesterday who is 45 and a retired police officer and says she is too old to go back to school. Pah! I know a woman who earned her B.A. at 70! I figure the only time I will truly feel old is when I stop striving to learn. (Or for those few minutes every morning when I creek my arthritic knees to standing! :)

Anonymous said...

I am about to be 40 and have been out of college 15 years. I left school as a senior. I am feeling so much anxiety and frustration about my writing skills and lack of preparation on how to begin to learn how to analyze articles... thank you very much for your words of support. I will begin the process to take writing classes to help unleash myself into academia.