Fulfilling the Empty Nest

Fulfilling the Empty Nest
A Real Life Story of Lilypads and the Prince By Penelope Penn

The reality of the “Empty Nest” can sneak into your life, gently settling like dust on a wooden mantle…or it can hit you hard. I had been preparing for it for years, but apparently my children did not have the same assurance that I would settle into it that I did. We had recently been transferred to a new area and I found myself suddenly underloved, overworked, over forty, and facing an uncertain career future. My son took my hand and told me how worried he and his sister were about me because my youngest would soon be leaving for college, and both would be gone and moving on with their lives. He thoughtfully explained that they had decided I needed a pet because I would surely dwindle away to nothing with no meaningful career and without them to take care of at home. Choking back laughter and tears, I assured him I would find something to do with my time. Why, I jokingly quipped, I had just seen a special program on the educational television channel, describing in great detail how to make plant fertilizer from a Brillo pad! This should assure them that I had a few good years left to make a meaningful contribution to society.

Nevertheless, about two weeks later I found myself the proud mom of a lovebird, and my children were free to pursue their dreams unencumbered with worries of meaning in my life. (I’m afraid my children had taken the term “empty nest” a bit too literally.) In any case, the lovebird, a job, and the pursuit of fertilizer did not adequately fill my days. I was also away from friends and familiarities, not to mention the career I had loved – which was not transferable. To my dismay, I found myself faced with the dilemma many over 40’s are facing today due to downsizing, displacement, and “the empty nest.”

I saw firsthand that it’s tough to compete with the over educated, self-assured, not to mention overly slim, attractive 24 year olds. Life’s experiences and the wisdom they bring, just doesn’t give you the edge anymore. No, a piece of paper’s worth a thousand words, and I knew I wanted a degree. A few years ago I would have been thrown into the throes of the traditional classroom, the career clock ticking faster than the biological one. Now thankfully, I found that there were many non-traditional opportunities. I also counted my blessings: the advantage empty nesters have over the younger generation is that we’ve been to, and graduated from, the school of hard knocks. Undoubtably tenacity and negotiating skills have also been added to our portfolios!

The next thing I learned was the truth of that old adage, “You have to kiss a lot of toads before you meet your handsome prince.” Knowing that just seems to make things easier when you’re facing a gaggle of academians, sitting on their big BA’s. Choosing writing as my final career, I decided I was willing to make the sacrifices for the satisfaction, and I was on my way.

Work Experience = College Credit
Now I must admit I was not willing to spend hours in a classroom. Many employers today are willing to take on an empty nester or career changer with “life” experience, as long as they are working toward that coveted piece of paper, and I intended to produce something tangible in the least amount of time possible. (Logical thinking is the thing that takes the place of loud music for empty nesters.) Following logic’s lead, I sought to combine my volunteer work with college credit, and I knew the perfect opportunity. Upon arrival in the new area, I had volunteered for a large non-profit, social service agency and they had been talking about updating their written communications with more recent stories of the clients and agencies they served for their PSA’s and printed materials. This offered me the chance to continue working with the charities I loved and with the friends I had made at the non-profit, but in a capacity that would offer me hands on experience as well as recognition.

Internship plan in hand, I was ready to research schools. Typically, a student will enroll, be accepted, establish a relationship with an advisor, professor, or a department chair, then approach them with their internship idea– or instead ask what will provide hands-on experience and a tangible product (in my case a portfolio of printed materials.) Obviously, a portfolio will not be an option for all majors and many companies will offer letters of recommendation, job searching assistance, and even a job to the intern upon completion of the internship. It is important to specify exactly what you expect to take from the internship, and not be afraid to use the negotiation skills learned while discussing prom curfew time with your teenager! My clock was ticking so loudly I could only hear “find the Prince, find the Prince” and so the lily pad path to the registrar, professor, advisor, and then back to a professor were not in my plan.

The Lilypads
Since schools differ on their policies regarding internships, I encountered as many different attitudes as I did regulations. Summer is typically a more difficult time to begin this preliminary process, as many professors are off or out of the country doing research. Too, I found a vast difference between a large and a small school; a private and a state institution; a coed and a college for women. Additionally I saw that internships are relatively new to most schools (most began in the 80’s) and it’s not uncommon to encounter stumbling blocks and people who aren’t really sure how to go about setting one up.

I focused on an excellent large, state school nearby that had a good reputation, a wide variety of degree choices, and was affordable. Deciding that because of their size, they would have a good network of internship opportunities and therefore professors willing to take me on, I began calling. After hearing the typical recording- the hours, location, etc., then “stay on the line,” with a long wait, finally I had a warm body! I happily explained that I was interested in talking to the person who set up internships for students. The very polite warm body then suggested I call back and press the button for the “switchboard and they may be able to help.” I wondered if I had said, “Where do I make a donation” if I would have gotten the switchboard? No matter. I quickly dialed the switchboard number to drown out my ticking.

After several people in the background discussed where to direct me, and cut me off mid- sentence, I was connected to Career Services. Ring, ring, ring, ring…and again the dreaded recording: “leave a message and someone will call you back as soon as possible.” By now I was getting slightly desperate. I scanned the phone book and discovered the Women’s Studies program. Dialing, I again got the recording, “I’ll be out,” etc. So I called the VP of Student Affairs and thankfully reached a warm body. To my frustration, I was politely advised to “go through the college in which you intend to major in” and then given all the numbers for English, Humanities, and Creative Writing. Larger schools such as this will also have a plethora of paperwork to complete as you wind through a network of procedures. For example, after setting up the internship with your selected advisor, you will be directed to some sort of outreach department which will match you, the professor, and the internship with a corporation in the community. If your clock ticks more slowly than mine and you decide to go to a school like this, arm yourself with a catalog, or at least a school telephone directory of department listings before you sail into this slippery voyage.

My next experience with a smaller, private college was very different, but equally challenging. I found that if you’re unfamiliar with the school, the Dean of Students is a good place to start. To my delight, I reached a warm body the first time I dialed! I explained my quest and began reaching tentatively for the next step. “Humanities,” I queried?

“Might be a possibility” the very helpful gentleman on the very large lily pad in the Dean’s office offered. “Advisor,” I asked? “Possibly, but start with these people and they will refer you.” Now was the time to use that patient tenacity I’d learned from arguing with a carpool of toddlers, and so I listened as I was advised that the procedure would be to first establish a relationship with one or more advisors, then inquire about an internship. I explained that I had been working for a particular non-profit for several years (a very respected and well-known social service agency in not only this community, but nationwide). I also said that they were familiar with me as well as my work, having already been “published.”

At this, he quickly interjected, “That is all well and good madam, but this particular institution is NOT familiar with you” and that I would have to establish a relationship with someone at the school before I could even begin to entertain the idea of an internship. Tick, tock, tick, tock…my clock was ticking…surely he could hear it?

The Prince
No matter. Sharpened by my experience at Hard Knocks U, I was emboldened by the fact that I had options and was ultimately holding the pen. The pen is truly mightier than the sword, and even more powerful when it’s writing on a check! After all, as we are competing for jobs, the colleges are competing for tuitions!

My prince finally came in the person of the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Hollins University, a small, private, yet very progressive womens university in Virginia. Dr. Messner confided that in his 19+ years working with interns, I was the first to introduce the internship to him before being enrolled and going through traditional channels, but it was indeed appreciated and workable. He said I saved him work and precious time, and his flexibility, helpful attitude, and expertise saved me hours of frustration! After I explained my goal, identified my sponsor, and specified the mutually agreed upon steps needed to complete the assignment, he offered to personally call professors to identify the best person for me to work with. Within 24 hours, he called back with the name and phone number of a professor who would offer me the best mentorship to achieve my goal and was willing to take me on.

But Dr. Messner didn’t stop there. He proceeded to ask if I had a resume. If a student does not, he refers them to Career Development “as internship sponsors sometimes want resumes, especially if they don’t know a student well.” He suggested that students “start with who they know,” because he finds that the best internships are ones attained through personal contacts. In other words, network, network! “The goal of internships is for them to be learning experiences and career explorations,” he explained. “so the student has to be comfortable with the person. Also, you want them to remember you for a referral.”

As if this wasn’t enough, at Hollins University as a Horizons student I was eligible to “name my price” for the internship. Since you are charged “by the credit hour,” you can choose to receive one to four credits for the internship, which of course determines the price. In addition, you will be eligible for tuition assistance including a grant which awards you 45 percent of the tuition; a lifetime learning credit; and a merit scholarship for community service, leadership, or academic excellence.

I hope my story encourages you and gives you hope on your journey. My empty nest is fulfilled…and if you don’t give up, you too will find your prince.

Penelope is currently freelancing as once again her husband has been transferred. Although she was forced to resign due to another transfer, her efforts culminated in a position as editor/writer for a local parenting magazine. She also writes about women in a local, formerly male, sports magazine.