Pomp and Circumstance
Over the next several weeks of spring, more than 3.1 million students will earn a degree in higher education, ranging from a two year associates on up to a doctorate (National Center for Education Statistics, Projections of Education Statistics to 2018, Tables 27-30). They will pour forth from the halls of academia into a slightly less pallid economy offering a slightly better job outlook than last year. Of those graduates, a third will be “adult students,” a.k.a. non-traditional students, a.k.a. students who did not enter college directly from high school. In addition to delayed enrollment, non-traditional students are noted as attending part-time, working full-time, are financially independent, often with dependents. In fact, 47% of new and returning college student populations are age 25 or older. Hardly the crowd who goes from hall passes to keg stands in a short 6 weeks.
In his January State of the Union Address, President Obama told the story of 55 year old Kathy Proctor, a North Carolina mother of two who had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. When the rich heritage of the furniture industry began to be outsourced and the factories closed, Ms. Proctor decided to return to school in pursuit of a degree in biotechnology. She does it because she needs a job in this evolving economy, but also because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams. As she said, “I hope it tells them to never give up.”
A Calculated Risk
I know a woman with a similar story. She enrolled in college for the first time the same year she celebrated her 20 year high school reunion. Since I am staring down my own 20 year reunion this year, knowing this woman’s story gives me hope that this age (my age) is definitely not too late to re-start anything. This is her story:
Before her father had died, he had given her what looked like a brick wrapped in aluminum foil. Inside was a stack of cash – thousands of dollars he had saved over his lifetime and kept at home in the fashion typical of a blue collar immigrant. Grateful, she spent some on improving her home, spent some on her kids, and eventually decided to spend some on herself. But on what?
See, the immigrant father was married to an immigrant mother who, upon answering a long-ago telephone call from the admissions officer at a local university congratulating her on her daughter’s acceptance, insisted that her daughter would be getting a job soon and would not have time for college. Now what this woman wanted for herself all this time later was an education. She entered a math and chemistry program at a 2-year college, after a twelve year absence from the work force and with two children in elementary school.
It’s not too late and the road is never too long
It took her 3 and ½ years to complete an associates degree in math and chemistry, an eternity of calculus and labs mixed in with the kids’ dance classes, softball games, sleepovers and algebra. She spread out her books on the living room floor every night after fixing the dinner and cleaning the kitchen. As the dishwasher sloshed, she solved equations. The hardest part surprisingly wasn’t taking on advanced math after a 20 year absence from the classroom; the hardest part was simply doing any homework at all with two kids playing, squabbling, suffering the chicken pox, grieving an expired hamster and generally demanding the attention that children require to, well, live.
Somehow enough order was maintained for her to do well enough to graduate with honors. She skipped her graduation and began working almost immediately in her field. As she addressed her children about their academic careers, it was never as “if you go to college,” it was always “WHEN you go to college.”
Wait, there’s more!
Twenty years later this woman did it again. Going as far as she cared to at the same company where she had started working immediately after earning her degree, she packed it in for a career change. Another period of learning something new and another new schedule that involved distance learning and licensing tests along with household management and, this time around, the whirlwind of grand-kids.
Spring comes every single year. The tulip bulbs don’t ponder whether they should push through barely thawed ground or whether the threat of a coating of late-season snow might make the going a bit too tough. The lesson here is that you can begin again as many times as you are willing to try. And you will know when it’s time to push through and bloom.
Who do I have to thank for sharing this incredible story and simple lesson? My mom.
Happy Mother’s Day!