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Old Dogs, Old Tricks

By Jason Ground
Arizona Summer Wildcat
July 28, 1999
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When I first decided to return to school, it was with some trepidation and caution. I didn't worry about the workload or my ability to understand the subject matter, my fear sprang from the financial pit of my soul. Going upwards of $20,000 in debt for any reason, gives pause.

I could have chosen one of those night school colleges and been able to work full-time. That would have made monetary sense but c'mon - if you were choosing between a person with a degree from the University of Arizona or the University of Phoenix, who would you choose?

Instead, I chose to be poor for a while.

I am a minority among returning students - most haven't finished their bachelor's degrees. Either they have been to college but not graduated or delayed entering college until now. I already have a degree from Arizona, in English.

I went back to school because, for some reason, there aren't any job listings that read: "Multi-national corporation seeks motivated individual to delineate the differences between Byron and Shelley. Knowledge of the American romantic movement. a plus. Some heavy lifting."

The sheepskin looks nice hanging on the wall. In fact, with the possible exception of an original portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, it's the most expensive thing my grandfather ever paid for that can be hung on a wall.

This is not to denigrate the English department, it's society's fault. There seems to be this perception that all English majors will be teachers. If I had a dime for every time I was asked "You gonna' teach?" after revealing I was an English major, I wouldn't have been looking for that elusive want-ad. Out in the world, it seems that most human resource directors think that's all English majors can do.

My first time through, I was flighty and unfocused, I didn't have the slightest clue what I was supposed to be getting out of college. And I drank - a lot!

Paula Poundstone has a bit - "The reason adults ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up is: they're looking for ideas."

Ha-ha, but my own experience after school was that I figured out what I didn't want to do.

That's something I've noticed about returning students - by and large, we tend to be more focused, both on our studies and our ultimate goal. Perhaps age has granted us wisdom.

More likely though, returning students have a life to lead in addition to being students. We have mortgages, kids, bosses. More often than not, there's no third party fronting the money, so we're more vigilant about our investment. Basically, we just don't have the time to fool around.

I don't mean to imply any sort of superiority in being a returning student. I mean if this was 'Logan's Run', many of us would have gone to Carousel long ago. By the way, I have no statistical basis for my views, but belief is usually based on anecdotal evidence, right?

As for the social part of college, returning students are certainly on the periphery, but that's to be expected. We remind our classmates of their mortality, and the impending responsibility of life after they leave the cocoon of academia. We're also pretty uncool.

Beyond the May-December dynamic of any potential relationship, platonic ones too, our ideas of fun are rarely the same. How many 19-year-old fraternity guys want to spend an evening playing monopoly with a 30-year-old classmate and his wife and children? I was one, and I didn't.

Personal note: Nice going you jackasses! Those of us who are single are inevitably the 'Uncle Ernie' of the group.

To their credit, when I see my younger classmates out at a bar they greet me warmly, but I suspect it's that they're amazed I'm up past 9 p.m.

Also, returning students sometimes hog the attention of professors. It might come across as sycophantry, but I think it's because we are older and naturally have more in common with them. I'm sure it's frustrating though.

I've cringed more than once when an older student has interrupted a lecture for five minutes to ramble about an experience they've had that is only vaguely related to the point the professor has just made. But that's probably more a function of personality than age, because pretension, like love, knows no age.

So kids, young and old, how do we get along, with so little common ground? Well, we could try to look at the world from the other guy's perspective. The first-timers could try to see that often this is the first time a returning student has had to stretch their intellect and express themselves. Returning students should also remember that their classmates are out on their own for the first time, and all that comes with that, is experience. Or, we could just ignore each other.

Either way is fine, knock wood, I'm outta' here in December.

I'll leave you with some advice. First timers- don't be surprised if your parents get smarter as you get older. Mine did. My fellow returning students, I leave you with the words of an old guy named Tex after he ran right over me to score in a rugby game when I was 21; "Age and guile will overcome youth and ability every time."