The raucous movie “Life of the Party” starring Melissa Mc Carthy features stay-at-home mom and newly divorced Deanna who goes to college. The trailer shows her sitting with a friend after some rather hilarious unathletic attempts at racquetball, wondering about what to do now, when she suddenly says, “Oh my God, I know what I’m going to do!”
I had a moment like that three years ago. Inspired by my little sister (who finished nursing school at 45) I applied to graduate school in social work. Pushing 50 and sporting fabulous silver hair (but, not because I’m trendy like that), I got accepted and started classes in Fall 2016. Turns out, I am not alone in my middle-agedness and definitely NOT the oldest student in my program. An NBC News piece suggested we older students are part of a trend and that by 2020 perhaps 19% of all undergraduate and graduate students will be over 35 years old.
While I don’t really identify with Deanna being the life of the party–no divorce, frat parties or sex between the library stacks–this middle-aged stay-at-home mom has collected a few takeaways from returning to school at an age when most people are receiving their AARP cards.
I actually like millennials!
Most of my classmates fall into this age bracket, as do my oldest kids. In recent years, millennials have gotten a bad rap as they struggle to adult. Parents and employers of these adult children complain of their apparent selfishness and over-indulgence. They accuse millennials of being more concerned about being a good Snapper or posting their next Insta-worthy travel excursion than securing and maintaining a job to pay back student loan debt, for instance. Post undergrad financial difficulties or pursuit of graduate education may boomerang millennials back to their parents’ basements for a time. Apparently, adulting is hard!
However, going back to school with this generation, I’ve realized they generally aren’t self-serving basement dwellers (a term coined by my young adult son who recently did his own boomerang back home).The millennials I study with (and my older children, for that matter) have big hearts and work hard. They care about people, justice for the underserved, fairness and equality. They have genuine concern about the environment and the world we cohabit. While my views may not always line up with their politics or ideology, I sincerely admire their passion and willingness to get their hands dirty providing for themselves and making a difference in others’ lives.
School is really lit! …Dude, it’s dope.
The slang is borrowed from my teens, but the sentiment is my own. I loved school when I was little! By the time I graduated with my BA in 1989 my enthusiasm waned to academic burnout. But, after almost a 30- year academic respite, it’s been GO TIME! Following the last couple-plus decades wiping kids’ messy orifices, playing taxi, and managing all manner of crises, school has become a blessed break from the crazy at home.
Papers due/overdue? No Problem!
Speaking of the crazy at home, family life can be exponentially more stressful than the heaviest academic load. Cleaning vomit from the rug, managing the saltiness of a menstruating daughter, and taming a rebel teen, for instance, make writing a paper seem like eating candy. Deadlines? Whatever! Maybe that paper didn’t get done because Buddy had to go the ER for a concussion after falling off the top bunk while sleeping or because Janie drank washer fluid thinking it was Gatorade (actual events). An academic assignment seems highly insignificant in comparison to the health or well-being of my children.
In my undergrad days, I would have stressed to the max over a paper due, like, oh my God! (hey, it was the 80’s). Looking at it now and considering where to spend emotional energy—academic stress verses real life stuff—real life wins every time. The people in my life matter more than my grades or graduate school success.
Perimenopause sucks, but, man, it makes all-nighters easier.
OK. I don’t know if it’s those perimenopausal night sweats and hot flashes or the fact that I haven’t really slept well since I started parenting 27 years ago. The resulting sleepless nights are great, though, for writing papers into the wee morning hours! I used to be up nursing and soothing fussy babies. Those babies turned into teens and young adults going out all night doing God-knows-what, and I worried. I still do. I worry and often don’t sleep well.
Those sleepless nights have turned into productive times to complete assignments and write papers. And frankly, doing homework in the middle of the night is a welcome distraction to the mind’s vison of my teenager drinking himself silly or getting high at a bon fire (“Yes, Mom, the parents are supervising. There won’t be any drinking or weed. I promise.” Uh huh.)
Life experience matters.
There’s just a depth of understanding, a richness of experience with the older student. We’ve lived through things like marriage issues, contentious children, chronic illness, elderly parents’ dementia, and deaths of loved ones. Moms like me who haven’t had a “real job” in decades have valuable skills and a diverse collection of experiences to enhance any workplace. I went back to school to beef up the skills set, make it official and to show I know how to “work” in a classroom or in an internship.
If we can convince future employers that this stuff matters, they’ll be the better for having had us, as this Fortune article indicated. I have had plenty of positive feedback from professors and internship supervisors indicating just that…Graduating next summer and seeking employment immediately thereafter. My middle-aged self remains hopeful for a return on this late stage investment called graduate school. Can I send you my resume?
Heather Parlmer is currently pursuing her Master’s in Social Work at Western Michigan University. She will graduate in June 2019 and has career interests in hospice, medical social work and clinical therapy. As wife to loving hubby and mother to eight children, ranging from adulting hard to angsty teen to 4th-grade aspiring “sit-down comedian,” she values every moment of her crazy-loud, beautiful, and full life. She can be reached at [email protected]l.com.