04/01/2013 04:05 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Confessions of an Aging Student: Returning to College in My 40's

In the mid-'90s I decided to take a break from college and work a while, do other things. The decision was part necessity, part lack of momentum. Things happened. I traveled a little -- moving from California to St. Louis to Huntington, W.Va., to Albuquerque to Lawrence, Kansas, Kansas City, Mo., and finally settling in southern Oregon, crisscrossing the country, and gathering experiences as I went.

In fact, my adventures included, somewhere along the way, meeting my wife, marrying my wife, having children, divorcing my wife, remarrying my wife, and having more children. My freewheeling days as a self-styled American vagabond were short-lived. Life is hard. After working for more than a year trading currencies online from a home computer, and losing everything, I threw up my hands. It was time to go back to school. My fifteen-year hiatus was over.

I admit I was a bit nervous. I didn't realize that I was part of a trend at the time of older students returning to college. I imagined being the pariah in the corner of the classroom, the "old man" as compared to the 19-year-old, fresh-faced freshmen. Still an undergraduate, I wasn't sure how many of my former credits would transfer. A former English major who planned an emphasis in creative writing the first time I went to college (not counting my tenure at Bible college in the late '80s), my objectives had shifted.

The justification for going back to college was to be more employable. My wife encouraged me to pursue something in computers. I hesitated, but then thought, well, maybe emerging media, where I could satisfy my creative impulses. My counselor, however, sensing that I was really not interested in computers or even emerging media, warned me of all the young, competitive, smart kids out there who grew up on the Internet, unlike me, and suggested I pursue a field I am actually interested in. I acquiesced very easily. Balancing pragmatic concerns with genuine interests is no easy task for me, since the two, unfortunately, rarely merge.

So how would it be, I wondered, sitting in a classroom with all of these kids who could really actually be my kids, had my life taken a completely different turn when I was 20 or so (my first child, a son, was not born until I was 34, and my third and last child, a daughter, was not born until I was 42). I projected my own sense of failure into an imaginary room, chastising myself, comparing myself to others, like, for instance, the President of the United States, who, when he was my age, was successfully running for the Presidency of the United States. All right, so maybe I have high standards.

My younger brother, a successful Ph.D., and an economist (who also volunteered to very generously help foot some of the expenses for my return to college), assured me that in his classrooms the older students are usually a welcome contribution. I wasn't so sure.

Fortunately, while I did find myself in the minority, I did not find myself alone. At first, I thought that the high numbers of returning older students was just a panicked reaction to job loss due to the Great Recession. I'm sure in many instances that this is absolutely the case. But it turns out that the phenomenon of returning older students is a trend that has been going on for a while, including retirement age college students and graduates in their 70's. This is due partly to a shift in the population where there are more older people than younger college-age people. It is also due, obviously, to a weak economy, even though constantly rising and exorbitant tuition and other associated costs (for instance, when you have to pay $185 for a required 200-page trade paperback, this is a sign that something isn't quite right in the land of academia) and incurred debt may ultimately make it an unwise choice for some people.

In the '90s, I was accepted to the University of California in Berkeley, a well-known institution fondly referred to by the locals as "Cal", but other than a summer class in Russian language that I dropped, I never really started there. This time around I found myself at the closest institute of higher learning I could find, one of the best kept secrets in the state, Southern Oregon University, nestled in Shakespeare country, the somewhat small community of Ashland, known for its theater. Classes are small. The instructors are committed, or should be. And while the weight of the student body population are much younger than me, no one really seems to care. My misbegotten fears have largely been forgotten.

Of course, my experience of college, like those of my nontraditional cohorts, does not reflect this time the popular cliches, dorm life, drinking binges or the making of lifelong friends. That experience is long irretrievable for me. Rather, it has an aura of metanoia to it (the Greek word for repentance), sort of akin to the humility mixed with courage one might feel when embarking on a second or third marriage. I do not go to club meetings or parties after class.

I work (I retain my contract job as a writer of online content, not in this venue obviously, to help pay bills.) Then I go home, spend some time with my family and maybe a couple of hours getting my three children to go to bed, which takes more effort than it feels like it should.

But this time around I feel oddly more receptive to the whole process, more aware of what I am learning and why. I am surprised at how exciting and stimulating an education can be. I am also far more directed in my purpose. I have become what my peers in high school used to disdainfully call "a straight arrow."

Whereas I felt a bit lost when it came to academic pursuits previously, I have more of an idea of what I am doing now, and am less embarrassed by my own ambitions. It's come a bit late, sure. But you know the old aphorism, so I won't repeat it here. Do I wish I had this kind of insight 18 or 20 years ago? You bet. Is returning to college in my 40s an unwise choice? I'll let you know in a couple of years. Right now, however, it seems right.