Two of my students this semester are non-traditional. That’s the academic way of saying they didn’t complete college in the years between 18 and 23. They’re both in their thirties, both mothers of teenage children. One is a single parent now, after a divorce; the other has remarried. One spent some years in the military. The other spent many years as a cosmetologist.
The fact that these women are classified as non-traditional students points to our belief that there’s a right time–or at least a traditional time–for a college education. That belief explains why so many people tell themselves that it’s too late to go back to school. (Notice that people always say go back, whether they ever went to college or not. The attitude seems to be that education is something we do when we’re young. If we walk away from it in our adulthood, then going to college must mean going backward. Even if we’re doing it to advance our career options.)
I have a friend who went to medical school in his 30’s. We met in our early 20’s, while working on our master’s degrees in English. At that point, I’m pretty sure becoming a physician was the last thing on his mind. (In fact, I’m confident it wasn’t on his mind at all.) But the circumstances of his life conspired to push him in that direction. When a doctor he was working with told him he’d make a great physician, my friend said “I’m too old for med school now. I’d be 40 before I could practice.”
“You’re going to be 40 anyway,” the doctor said. “The question is, do you want to be a 40-year-old physician?”
When I was younger, I believed in the idea of the right time for various things. Many of my friends got married right out of college; that seemed like the right time for taking this particular leap. So the fact that I had not yet met my life partner made me feel like I was running behind schedule. (Never mind that meeting the person you want to marry is, at least in part, beyond your control.)
After I did get married, some years later, I worried about waiting too long to start a family. I didn’t want to be pregnant in my 30’s; I’d decided that was too late. But I also wanted to achieve some level of financial stability before we had children. That clearly wasn’t going to happen until I’d earned my Ph.D.. No way that was happening before I turned 30.
As it turned out, I gave birth to my daughter the year I turned 30. That was one year before I started my doctoral program. My son arrived 3 years later, when I was halfway to a Ph.D.. A professor made it clear to me that I had chosen the wrong time to have my children, but I wanted both a family and an academic career. I saw no point in making one contingent on the other. (And anyway, if I had to choose, I knew which one would be my priority.)
I was talking with my non-traditional students about all of this before class last week, and they were stunned to hear it. “You were 36 before you got your Ph.D.?” one of them asked.
I nodded and gave her the brief version of my resume: two master’s degrees in my 20’s, then a 3-year hiatus from graduate school–during which it became clear that I’d be smacking my head against the academic glass ceiling if I didn’t get my Ph.D.. So I did. Raising children and getting my career off the ground at the same time wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t impossible. 38 was not too late to become a professor. In my case, it was pretty much perfect timing.
“I always feel like such a late bloomer,” my student said, shaking her head. “I have to keep reminding myself that people don’t do things in one specific order.”
She’s right, of course. There are plenty of people who would have told me it was too late to start working on a Ph.D. after my daughter was born. But I just plowed forward anyway. I hoped the pieces would fall into place. If they hadn’t, at least I would have known it wasn’t for lack of trying.
One of the biggest challenges I face as a professor is helping students understand that finishing is not the goal. Education is an expensive prospect, so I understand this concern–but most of the time, my students’ real objective is to move on with their lives. To marry, get jobs, start a family. If the years between 18 and 23 are the right time for college, they reason, then getting done early proves you’re destined for success.
What they fail to consider is that–like my non-traditional students–they’re going to learn many things about themselves as they keep on living. The marriage they’d thought would last forever may not. The degree they earned as a 23-year-old may not lead to a job that feeds their soul–or their children–when they’re 35.
That’s why it’s important to think of education as a process, not a phase. And that’s why we need to let go of the idea that there’s a right time for anything.
The right time to take action is when you’ve identified a goal that motivates you to take a leap, whenever that goal presents itself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 23 or 35–or, as was the case with one woman in my Ph.D. program, retirement age. She earned her doctorate simply because she wanted her grandkids to see that growing and changing never has to stop.
I think of her often, because that’s a lesson she taught me as well.