The Non-Traditional Student – Why They Call it a Degree

I turned 61 in July. The other day I sat in an admissions office to return to school. Going to finish my college degree after, oh, roughly three dozen years of ‘off campus study’, otherwise known as real life. Masters? Phd? My gap year? Nope, the basic bachelors degree, left unfinished, hanging in midair since 1967. In my case truly hanging in midair, since, in the intervening decades since I shlepped across campus, I paid the bills with a flying career.

So why this. And why now? Vanity? Boredom? The desire to surround myself with comely coeds? None of the above. The vanity took off a while ago, along with my six-pack which now resembles that Pillsbury dude; not boredom, either, since life gets more exciting the closer you come to the end, and if you don’t believe that, you’re under forty. The coeds? Please. For some men it takes them thirty years to realize they’re not 20 anymore. Not me. I happen to be happily off the market, being blissfully wed to the most alluring, and most beautiful woman on the planet. As Paul Newman said, why have hamburger out when you can have steak at home? Besides, who’s kidding who? I look forward to being called the OGOC, Old Guy On Campus, I really do.

So why go back? My wife said it best: You’re going to be 65 anyway; why not get your diploma, and start Social Security the same day? Enticing prospect, I thought. First it was the GI bill after the war, now another shot at double-dipping. Cool. Lovely girl, my wife, and so smart. I wondered why it wasn’t her pursuing the degree instead of me? But she has a sheepskin, and I don’t. Reason enough? No, but it illustrates the different vectors of our lives, and since turning 60-ish, and since semi-retirement, I saw her point: why not now? I have the time; I have the inclination since the itch to be credentialed never left; I have the money, the lack of which is roughly why I left college all those years ago, that and grades which were, ahem, sadly lacking as well. Then came Vietnam, marriage, kids, mortgages, the whole gamut, all of which pushed college further into the background.

Until now. A recent stroll around campus ignited my old ambition, and one thing led to another, and soon I found myself chatting with an advisor a third my age about, gulp, trying again.

Here, along with those enumerated by my spouse, is one of the reasons I’m choosing to return to college. Simply put, I have experience to share. Among older, workaday people, the vast majority of folks, in other words, there’s always been a rather jaundiced view of those among society fortunate enough to spend their days in the idyllic, so-called ‘Ivory Tower’ of academe. It may be jealousy, it may be envy, but for people in a nine-to-five world, the prospect of classes, books, college ambiance, and of course the party atmosphere represent a mythical part of life that, by its ephemeral nature, creates disdain in those whose weekly high point is Friday afternoon, especially if it’s payday. I’m just arrogant enough to believe that I can be a resource on that campus. Perhaps not to fellow students (I still marvel at that title), but to those who are charged with teaching such things as the three ‘R’s, readin’, ritin’ and real life. I’d like to think I can add a bit of nuance in that classroom. This is not something I would have been able to offer at 21, 41, or even 51. Now? I’d like to think my exposure to real life lo these past forty plus years since Winter quarter ’68 are useful, and sought by some who are truly desirous of learning, which is the prospective purpose of college, after all. I’d like to think I can add a measure of perspective and truth to otherwise hypothetical proposals. And, I’d like to think, which is by itself reason enough since, in my humble estimation, there’s a dearth of that particular activity in our cacophonous marketplace just now.

I’m evidently not alone. Depending on definitions, we ‘non-trads’ comprise an amazing 63% of the student body these days. There are many returning veterans, many gap year younger people, and many more laid off, downsized, retrained members of the labor force than ever before sitting in those admissions offices just like me. Plus, I’m a boomer, and everyone knows we’ll never grow up, never admit to being old until we start drooling in our socks, and even then…

The presence of such nontraditional students, especially military veterans, enriches the classroom, many teachers say. As for veterans such as myself: “They have seen the world, faced incredible dangers and had to make decisions that few civilians have had to. That helps other students see the world in a more nuanced manner,” according to Daniel Byman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, who addressed the subject recently in the Chronicle of Education. In my own case, having flown a helicopter in Vietnam, then from the cockpit of a medical helicopter for twenty years after, I’ve seen things, and done things, and gone places, and made decisions none of those comely coeds could ever dream up.

So Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s off to class I go, and, as far as I’m concerned, never too late. For my fellow semi-retired, boomers or otherwise, give it some thought. As my wife says, you’re going to be 65 anyway. More grey heads in the graduation line can only be a good thing. There’s even a sort of Darwinian component to it: Those younger guys, the jocks, and frat boys, the fellows who aren’t old enough to understand that the bill of your cap is supposed to shield your face, not the back of your neck, they may have to exhibit just a bit more maturity when we’re around. Many cultures revere their more experienced class; maybe we can nudge that idea closer to reality here by a degree, or two, or three…

Source by Byron Edgington

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