By Anne T. Donahue
Last year, I did the unthinkable: I went back to university to finish my degree in History (and to add Women and Gender Studies as part of a double major). At 37, this was shocking for many reasons. First, I was well into a career as a writer that I assumed would be my only path. Second, school and I never mixed particularly well, so I assumed I’d left it for dead. Third, school is expensive and in only a fantasy world would I have the money to take on five classes a semester.
But alas, here we are. Now somewhere between my second and third year, I am a grown-ass woman back in the part-time loving embrace of WLU, preparing for another semester in which my entire existence is split between deadlines for work and deadlines for papers. Do I love it? Yes: I am a keener who loves learning as long as she’s interested in what she’s learning about. Are there some things I wish I knew before I started? Absolutely. So if you’ve been toying with the idea of going back to school or starting over or having stress dreams about sleeping through end-of-term exams, here’s a guide from me to you.
Not a soul in the classroom is thinking about you
Not one! I mean, I’m sure everybody cares in a “I wish the best for every person” type of way, but if you’re worried about being The Old One amongst the Youths, relax: you are simply another person inside the class. You are a fellow student typing notes and listening to the prof and trying your hardest not to freak out aloud at the notion of a single paper counting for 40% of your overall mark. You will only ever be the weird older person if you saunter up to a group of students, Steve Buscemi-style and ask “How do you do, fellow kids?” You will only ever be the weird older person if you start acting old and weird. (I say, as someone who’s often both of those word at the same time.)
Everybody around you just wants to get through the day, and 99% of them would also just like to go to school and mind their own business. You’re not Billy Madison, and you don’t have to justify why you’ve taken the course. Just go to class! It’s fine! Everybody is just as afraid as you are!
School is way less stressful in a way I didn’t know was possible
When I started university the first time (in 2008 and at 23 because I love taking my time), it was widely understood that “too bad” was the answer to every comment, question, or concern. Everything was different! Mental health wasn’t as much of a priority, and the idea of emailing a professor for any reason was nothing short of horrifying. Were those my hang-ups? Maybe: in 2008, I was very different and wore berets on a daily basis because I was “artsy.” (I was also very scared of most things.) But now? It’s the working world, baby: instructors aren’t out to get you, you can communicate like a person, ask questions, and exist without fear. I love this because in real life, you certainly don’t fail your job if you get the flu, and asking your boss a question is a completely reasonable thing. Everyone wants you to do well! Or at the very least, not do badly.
Everything’s more interesting when you really want to be there
Last semester, I did accidentally take a class about WWII battles thinking it was not about battles at all. (It’s a long story that involved not having heard the phrase, “the European theatre” before.) Do I know anything about battles? About WWII strategies? About tanks and platoons? We know I do not, but that I am merely asking these questions for dramatic effect. And yet because I was psyched to be at school, I was psyched to learn my shit. It’s exciting to learn when you actually want to learn, and it’s a lot harder to disengage and think, “Meh – whatever” when you’re a grown-ass person paying their hard-earned money to not fail spectacularly.
You can take your time! It’s fine!
When we were sweet baby angels, there was a push to get everything finished as soon as you could so you could enter the workforce and be set for life. And how did that work out for us? #LOL (I will never own property.) Now? Thanks to Gen Z’s refusal to settle for what we did, there’s less pressure to wrap up the game ASAP. You also don’t have to dive into school and reformat your identity if you can’t or simply don’t want to: no university (at least in my experience) is going to email asking what the hold-up is; why you’re not sailing through a full semester because how dare you. This semester, I’m trying my hand at taking three courses simultaneously, but if I can’t handle it I’ll re-assess because racing to some far-away (and often non-existent) finish line is the last way I’d like to experience academia. Also, I still need to work because I live in reality where I have bills to pay.
And it’s fine! The comparison game is over! Which is why I think I love school so much this time around: I’m trying my best, because I like trying my best. I’m learning because I love learning. I’m getting my degree because I’d like to open some more doors, end-game TBD. But that’s another thing school-as-a-grown-up as taught me: nobody has one, and that’s more than okay.
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