My College Years – 1964-2001

By John Edward Hewitt

I’ve been an adult college student most of my life. Three times I’ve re-entered and finally I received an Associates degree. I’m now working on a Bachelors, and I have no intention of stopping there. Here are a few tips learned along the way – the long way, that is, and the story of how I learned them, to help and encourage returning students and people who are thinking about returning.

Persevere-Don’t Stop
My first return to college was in 1969, inspired by Joe Namath and the New York Jets winning the Super Bowl. I began with one course, English Composition. I passed the course but soon lost interest and opened a business instead of continuing. Every September, though, I would feel like I was missing something. I’d get the urge to go back, and I would contemplate different career possibilities that might be attainable if I had a college degree. Sometimes I went as far as speaking with an advisor or attending an open house. Ten years later I did return, and after attending two colleges on and off and passing three CLEP exams, I was awarded an AS in Business on my daughter’s tenth birthday in 1996, at the age of fifty. It had taken thirty-two years to achieve the level of education most students reach in two years. If I hadn’t taken the ten years off, I would have graduated at forty years old and in the prime of my working years, when the degree might have had a more significant impact on my job prospects.

Begin with a Variety of Courses
Motivated by that milestone, I began taking courses at the Fairfield University School of Continuing Education, the fourth college I’ve attended. I had no clear idea what major to pursue, but that was beneficial in the long run and led me to tip number two: Take a diverse selection of courses. Don’t decide on a major or a specific program the day you return to college. It’s not necessary to choose your exact career goal or final degree that early. On my second return, I was advised to sit in on one session of a law course and a philosophy course before enrolling. I knew nothing about philosophy, but I thought I would enjoy and benefit from the law course. After one night in each class, law seemed dull and philosophy was thought provoking, challenging, and invigorating. I completed the philosophy course and received my first A since elementary school. At Fairfield, I’ve taken a broad range of courses, including Astronomy, American Studies, Ethics, Religious Studies, and Chemistry. By chance, I registered for an English Writing course. The professor was encouraging, knowledgeable, skilled at teaching, and was particularly tolerant of adult re-entry students. In my thirty-fifth year since high school, I discovered that I wanted to be a writer, and I have continued taking courses leading to a degree in English/Writing. I now write for a weekly newspaper and have submitted many articles for publication such as this one. The additional income augments my day job as a technical writer, and I find writing so enjoyable I can’t believe I get paid for it!

Take Writing Courses
Returning students should consider taking writing courses because they offer a wide range of benefits:

  • Students of all ages can use improvement in composition, grammar, and punctuation, and those improvements can be readily observed by employers and others who read our memos, reports, and e-mail messages.
  • Good writing can only help in your present career and improve your chances when seeking a different one.
  • Writing is a transferable skill that can be applied to almost any job in any company.
  • Adult students often have tremendous life experiences to share and find that writing offers a means of telling their stories. Writing, unlike when I was in high school, is really fun!

Writing is also well suited for online courses because it is easy to receive assignments, then complete and submit them electronically. Adult students can really benefit from the flexibility of online courses. I’ve taken online courses and independent study courses with good results, and instructors using those formats are usually accommodating and tolerant of students’ individual needs. Some courses are now “web-enhanced,” meaning that sometimes the class meets in the traditional classroom and other work is completed online.

Learn Freewriting
Decades ago I was taught that writing required strict adherence to specific steps, beginning with an outline, but in these recent writing classes I learned the process of freewriting. Freewriting encourages just putting down thoughts and ideas as they come to mind, then rearranging sentences and paragraphs later. Once the ideas are captured and saved, the process shifts to revising and editing to improve the flow. According to the Pratt Institute Writing and Tutorial Center, “If you have an idea in the back of your head but just can’t quite pin it down, this is the technique that will pull that idea out. Freewriting is also a method for developing a small hint of an idea into a fully grown one.” Freewriting is the key that has enabled me to pursue writing as a major and as a career. Without it, I would still be stuck on the outline.

Study Time is Anytime
It has taken me years to develop one important skill: the ability to read and study in fragments. In the past I would need to read a whole chapter or study for an hour without interruption in order to absorb the material, but now I’ve become accustomed to picking up a book for a few minutes while standing in line or waiting in the car to pick up my son or daughter. If this doesn’t come naturally for you, start practicing. Whenever you need to wait for someone, avoid the usual chatty discussions and gossip sessions. Instead, sit in the car or in a quiet spot where you can concentrate and make good use of your precious time. Don’t be surprised to see other adult students doing the same; about half of my coworkers are taking college courses.

Find Instructors with Schedules Like Yours
If you work all day and attend classes at night, try to find courses taught by instructors who have similar schedules. In one course, a full time statistics professor wrote on the board with his back to the class. At 9:30 at night, not many students understood what he was writing, no matter how clear it was to him. Eventually I did take a law course, and it was lively and interesting because it was taught by an attorney who had four children, worked all day, and taught at night. He, like the students, could not stay alert through dull, dry lectures, so he kept us busy with spirited discussions, cases to argue, and participation by every member of the class.

Consider Accelerated Courses
One advisor said returning students should avoid accelerated courses, such as intense one-week or four-week courses, because a class that meets every day or three times a week leaves little time for studying. However, I began with two such courses and did well in both. It can be easier for adult students to stay focused and devote attention for a short time rather than try to persevere over a full semester with all the distractions and interruptions of adult life.

You Can Do It
If you are balking at the idea of going back, never use the excuse that you won’t fit in with all those young college kids. Along with other returning students, I’ve been in classes with pre-med majors, graduate students, and brilliant young minds that made me want to withdraw after the first class. I was sure I could never compete with them, and if I received a grade lower than a C, I would have to pay back the entire cost of the course to my employer. However, none of the adult students received less than a C; I was given an A minus or better in every one of those courses. On the other hand, avoid a course that has requirements you know you will not be able to fulfill. I registered for a one week, eight hours per day Religious Studies course, then read the requirements. I needed to write a ten-page research paper on a religion I knew nothing about, and submit another paper before the first class. I withdrew from that course before it began and took a different one.

Inspire Others
If you have school age children, one benefit of re-entering college is that studying sets a good example for them and shows the importance of education. Working hard in school will be more important if Mom and Dad do it, and I’ve spent some Sunday afternoons studying with my son in a university library. Your coworkers and friends might also be inspired by your educational progress and decide to join you.

Do it Now
I hope your journey is much shorter than mine, but whether it is or not, the most important tip I can share is this: Do it now! Do something – anything – as long as it is in the direction of getting that degree. Start now – NOW – today, when you read this. Time passes at an ever-accelerating rate. Remember how long it was from one birthday to the next when you were young? At my age, it seems that as soon as the smoke drifts away from the candles on the cake, another year has passed, and it is time to light them again. Once you enroll and get the process started, you will be amazed at how quickly the credits accumulate, and in a few years, you will be well on your way. Don’t wait another minute, and don’t worry about making the wrong choice. Go to some college website after you read this. Find a suitable course that interests you, contact an advisor, and register. When you do, continue to apply this tip to every assignment, to every temptation to take a semester off, and to every feeling that you’ll do it later. Later might become ten years, twenty years, or thirty years. Do it now! A college degree when you are fifty is great; getting one at forty is even better.