Old College Trial


July 3, 2009 by David Gillaspie


Older Student gives college another try to either ‘Close Old Chapters’ or, ‘Open New Horizons.’  Any resolution from ‘Move Forward With My Life’ to ‘Finish Unfinished Business’ means the same thing: show up and do something; show up and be somebody.

Non-traditional Student shows up saying the right things and doing the right things.  They don’t stumble around admissions.  They map the campus for the right classrooms in the right buildings and time the walk from class to class. 

Returning Student says the right things, but what really pulls them back?  What power works through them when inertia, the posture proven effective over the years, was the safe way to avoid the whole ordeal?

Who wants to submit their self-esteem to the beating it’ll get by re-entering the academic world?  Reviewing academic history brings things up, bad things, the sort of things that forced Returning Student to depart the student body to begin with.  Older Student doesn’t want to review their familiar record of postponing college, of starting and stopping.  But like it or not they will get that interview.  Again. 

This time they come in with a sharper view, their path lit by College Vision, the intellectual beacon for truth.  College Vision is what shines from Achieving Student during their quest for knowledge.  In a younger student, it’s enlightenment.  It’s enthusiasm.  It’s passion.  A thing of beauty.  All at once.  And they talk about it all the time.

In the older student, especially those forced through hard experience to package all of their emotions in tight bundles, the beacon of truth on the quest for knowledge is compressed under geological pressure.  It doesn’t fit into any prescribed container, but Older Student keeps jamming it in there, tighter and tighter, until the light flashes out of the college pan like a nuclear melt down.  Boom.

It gets messy when the radiation exposes things left long unseen, which is what it does best.  The beacon reveals the truth about the sidetracking events, the obstacles blocking the way.

Eventually the real problem comes to light:  belief.  They didn’t believe they’d be a good college student, even when they were there.  Not like now.  Now they’re older, and they know if they don’t make it this time, if they don’t show up and do something then the rest of their life will fall into a shallow cliché.  Failing now marks them a permanent drop out.

It’s too late to run off and follow Jerry.  Too late for Phish.

The term ‘drop out’ is a harsh label to sew on anyone, especially Young Student who makes bad decisions, falling in love with the wrong people, ignoring priorities.  Dropping out early might be one of the few good things they do.  But time passes, they start and stop, transfer and withdraw many times.  Carefree young student becomes frantic older student searching for a major that pays back. 

Choosing a major reveals a trade school attitude in Older Students.  While Younger Student logs the class hours needed for university requirements, exploring areas of interest before declaring a major like their advisor advised them, Older Student makes plans. 

If Older Student works in an accounting office, they major in accounting to show they haven’t given up.  They show they are dedicated to the field, thinking of the future.  Everybody likes to see that, at work, at home, on the bus.

Older Student lays out a schedule according to family and job and class availability.  Young Student is on a college adventure.  Young Student’s adventure is a fresh breeze for Older Student, who sees a degree as a necessary tool.  No more intellectual exploration, no more wasted time and money on classes out of the degree goal. 

At least it starts like that.

The meaning of university requirements and how they fit into the bigger picture finally sinks in.  Any class fulfilling a requirement and offered in the right time slot is the right class regardless of subject.  Older Student takes that class every time.  Younger Student waits for a more convenient offering.

Older Student makes sacrifices with their time to get to the classroom; the same adult sacrifices professors make.  They both have lives others depend on.  They share a bond Younger Student will never have unless they drop out a few times.

The importance of scheduling office time and meeting professors is an advantage for the Older Student who understands the personal nature of institutional life.  If the class scoring is close enough to warrant begging for the pity grade, they want the professor on their side.  (“Between work and school and dinner and laundry I didn’t have the time I wanted to put into the paper, but you can see my intentions, the direction I was going.”) 

That should nail the passing C in science.

The burden of the college experience gains additional weight when Older Student schedules a meeting with a professor to get some clarification on an assignment, mainly to check on that C. 

The professor isn’t there. Older Student spots Young Student with the professor over coffee in the student union.  While Younger Student is taking care to make the grade, Older Student has to make the grade as well as find the time to help the professor understand how hard they are working. 

Everyone likes a hard worker.

College strains every undergraduate, whether following high school, gap year on the continent, or following twenty years later.  There’s always problems.  When they need help, who better to ask than an advisor?  Who better to explain the skills needed to plot a course through the college system? 

If human nature suggests we like feeling important, then an advisor feels enormously vital if asked for academic advice by Older Student.  They shine brightest when asked to evaluate academic records and determine strengths.  You ask them to tell the future; they think they can do it.  And they can.

Ideally, the future for Young Student is one of an awakening social responsibility, of giving back to the system that nurtures them.  The professor’s signature will be one of many names happily signed on their application to graduate school.

The future for Older Student is often graduation in the shortest time possible.  Chances are good that Older Student finishes their unfinished business and see a new horizon of more money, greater status, or both.

The real meaning of college sneaks up on history major Older Student during the intricate graduate seminars held to discuss the treaties of pre-World War One Europe, or any other subject listed in the correct time slot.  The notion of hearing an issue from more than the standard point of view eventually settles in.  Older Student grasps the concept of the seminar process. Younger Student remains focused on the subject matter.

No matter how long they’ve been out of high school, a term or a decade, the late start/returning student will forever wear the ‘non-traditional’ brand.  That comes across as aimless in some interviews; in others indecisive.  It also carries the stigma of failure.

If starting college later, or returning after a lengthy break, means a failure, then it’s the failure to march lockstep with the herd.  No college class encourages marching lockstep, but they don’t teach fancy footwork either.  That information comes the hard way.

Once Older Student learns to control their ‘beacon of truth on the quest for knowledge’ the road ahead branches into directions once invisible.  After experiencing this magic, Older Student no longer drags their questionable past in shame.  The labels of ‘drop-out’ and ‘non-traditional student’ no longer stick in any meaningful way.

They feel the power.  They’ve found the road to knowledge and they race ahead at dangerous speeds.  Older Student returns to college because they’re not ready to accept the limitations, the feel, the notion of being done.  They believe in building a better future with a college degree mortared into the foundation. 

Together Older Student and Young Student discover sturdy materials in a classroom.


One thought on “Old College Trial

  1. sherilyndw says:

    Older Student here, thinking this post is very interesting!

    Traditionally Non-Traditional sherilyndw.wordpress.com

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