You’re Going Back to School at Your Age?

By Andy Cook


Here’s the interesting thing: grad school was always in the back of my mind. However, it took all the pieces being in the right place to make it happen. My undergrad years at Penn State were back in the 80s… the 1980s that is, just to be clear. In fact, I had been in grad school once before, in the late 80s, at Lehigh University. However, for those of you that can remember, we entered into a time when the economy was rough, and I found myself laid off not once, but twice in two years. Jobs in the Lehigh Valley were scarce, and paying the bills became job #1, and grad school (without my work subsidizing it) took a backseat to paying the mortgage.

Fast-forward 15 or so years. My career was on a different track, and I still had a desire to learn more. Two close friends of mine, Sarah and Robyn (also working professionals), were in grad school. Could the time be right for me? Turns out, it was. I found a program at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia that suited my goals and my schedule.

I felt pretty confident that I could handle learning new things, however I was unsure as to how much work outside of class was required. Would my day job (the one that pays the bills) suffer? Would I have grad school textbooks on my nightstand? Would my friends leave me voicemails asking me if I were still alive? Would my cat still recognize me?

Finding Balance

We are lucky to have a robust selection of undergraduate and graduate programs right here in the Lehigh Valley, and I’ll explore a few options later. Friends asked me “Why was I driving to Philly every week for school?” Well, for me, it came down to the program and what I wanted. I could have done the long distance route (Robyn went to American University in Washington DC), or local (Sarah went to Kutztown). For me, St. Joe’s was the right fit. If I was going to invest my time (nights and weekends) and money (and my company’s partial tuition reimbursement), and take time away from my friends and family, the ‘fit’ issue was of paramount importance.

When I started grad school in the fall of 2007, I began with one class, which met on five Saturdays over the course of the semester. I wanted to see if this was something I could manage, and didn’t want to set myself up for failure. I had heard that many people took 2 classes a semester, but I knew I had to set my own pace. As it turns out, the reservations I had were unfounded. Like many colleges and universities looking to attract returning adults and working professionals, the courses are designed to accommodate the challenges of real life. That first class set me on a path of success and, as I wanted to complete my program in 3 years, I did take 2 classes after that first semester.

I won’t mislead you – the year I was working on my thesis, doing the research, taking a concurrent class, commuting to Philly, and – oh yes – working my day job, was overwhelming at times! However, when you’re in the midst of it, it doesn’t seem that way. Hindsight, however, told a different story – I look back on that time and wonder how I ever found the time to accomplish all that.

Worth The Investment

Truthfully, I really enjoyed my grad school experience. I had professors who engaged and challenged me, I was in class with colleagues who did the same type of work I do, and the intellectual stimulation and the conversations I had elevated and enriched my experience. Several of my classmates (I graduated in 2010) have become good friends, and I don’t know if our paths would have crossed otherwise.

Going back to school was, as cliché as it might sound, life changing. I was able to make a difference and apply what I learned in class to my work. I was promoted twice since I began the program, and can say with certainly that the knowledge and experience was a definite factor. Returning to school as an adult, I had the motivation and focus to excel. If I was going to invest my time and energy, I wasn’t about to shortchange myself.

Local Options

In our area, we have many educational options including technical and community colleges as well as 4-year colleges and universities.  Paula Hannam, Director of Marketing and Publications for Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC), says they have workshops geared for returning adults that have been well attended. Roberta Kuhns, an adult LCCC student says “In order to compete in today’s job market it is necessary for me to further my education.” With over 100 degrees and programs, including online courses, LCCC offers flexibility to returning adults with full and part-time schedules. Open to the entire community, LCCC is committed to making each and every student succeed.

The Wescoe School of Muhlenberg College offers 25 programs including traditional and accelerated bachelor and associate degrees, with classes available days, evenings and weekends. The student population at The Wescoe School is diverse and includes people who are unemployed or underemployed, people in good positions wanting to refresh their skills as well as those who want to complete their degree as quickly as possible. Jane Hudak, Dean of The Wescoe School, says there is no “one size fits all.” Her advice is “to go and talk to the academic advisers at a potential school, so you can find the one that best fits your needs and educational goals.”

I couldn’t agree more. Attend an open house at an academic institution. Talk to your friends who have gone back to school. And don’t let something like your age be a barrier – you may be embarking on a great adventure.

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