Midlifers Head Back to School


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An autumn morning dawned in Technicolor. September presented itself to Northwest Arkansas as a vivid, flagrant visitor. Trees lined campus walks. Yellow, sun-dappled and fire-lined leaves stretched out like expanding fingers. A symbol of life at the university: warm, expansive, minds afire. I strode along the senior walk lined with names of students who came before me. The names date back to 1901, when the first seniors of University of Arkansas graduated and walked a path toward some distant, unknown future.

I was exuberant about being here. Midlife had brought many changes and this had been one. I was back at school, tidying up loose ends; needing to complete a degree that had been hanging over my head, as unfinished business tends to do.

“Midlife is a developmental fork in the road, " wrote Cecilia Goodnow of the Seattle Post-Intelligence Reporter.

Acquiring a degree would signify I had achieved what others had not and allow me to compete in a profession I loved. Before I returned to an institutional setting, I knew where my heart was. The problem was getting my work noticed. If I was not at the same level of achievement and skill as others in the profession, I wouldn’t have a chance.

The first semester at the university was a process of acclimation. I was adapting to my new environment. Surrounded by youth, I realized social opportunities with my peers would be limited.

I became a sponge—soaking up the knowledge imparted by those beings of higher intelligence and wisdom—teachers, most of whom are teaching assistants and pursuing their own path of study.

I managed to get through the first semester without much of a problem. My lab instructor for the Fundamentals of Journalism class seemed to think I didn’t appreciate her higher standing. I had raised my hand during one of her lectures and she considered it rude and told me in very specific language that she felt I was challenging her authority. The teacher of the lecture section of the class proudly claimed that she had never had a student “ace" the exams she prepared. When I heard this, I thought, that may say something about her teaching ability. I received a ‘D’ in the class.

Sue Shellenbarger, author of The Breaking Point! How Female Midlife Crisis is Transforming Today’s Women, writes, “In the past decade, part-time enrollment grew nearly twice as fast among over-35 women (a 10.5 percent increase) as in the general population. "

University of Michigan sociologist Deborah Carr co-authored a study with Jennifer Sheridan illustrating that midlife women generally return to school after a change in marital status. According to the study, “Event history analyses reveal that marital dissolution increases women’s risk of returning to school. "

Trends indicate that women are returning to school in large numbers. “The increase is even more marked among women and persons over age 40. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of nontraditional female students on college campuses increased by 477 percent…"

Like me, most of these women want to receive an education that will prepare them for whatever comes next. Whether changing career or just for the pure joy of receiving an education, women are going through the same processes on university campuses.

One of the more important aspects of the educational process is being able to spend enough time on each subject of study and understanding the learning process. If you don’t have time to spend on a subject of study, you won’t learn the material.

How we learn is as important as what we learn. If you know your particular style of learning, you can tailor your study to that style. Do not make the mistake of assuming your style of learning is stagnant. I found my ability to retain information much lower than in previous years and my method of study wasn’t helping. I changed the way I studied and my grades are evidence the change worked.

Learning styles vary with the individual. “People rely on personally constructed filters, " writes Terry O’ Connor, in an article from Indiana State University. The filters orient the individual to the external environment and are responsive to factors that include: age, experience, maturity, cognition and several other determining factors.

Some people are more responsive to auditory signals than visual material. Others respond well in peer or team learning environments while some prefer private study. It really is, all about your individual learning style.

Exam stress is common among students and though midlifers may be less concerned about grades than the younger student, stress is still involved. Experts agree on a few basic maneuvers to help beat exam stress.

  1. Prepare for the work ahead. Know the material you will be tested on, so you won’t be reduced to cramming at the last minute.
  2. Realistic expectations. Do not expect perfection.
  3. Positive affirmation. Believe in yourself and pat yourself on the back because you have the courage just to step into the testing center/room.
  4. Try regular stress reducing methods before the test. Get a message, stretch, try meditation, or go for a run. Anything that will take your mind from the exam for a short time and let you rest mentally.

When the academic year ended, I was ready for a break. Summer is bestowing rest and life back into this weary body and mind. Returning to school is not what I expected, but the rewards are worth the effort. I’m looking forward to the fall, when I will join millions of other midlife women returning to class.

Carla R. Herrera is a freelance writer and author of The Contemporary Woman’s Guide to Midlife: Essays and Resources for Life Transitions. She’s currently working on her next book, Contemporary Woman’s Guide to Midlife Dating and publishes an online magazine for midlife women, 40+


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