07/05/2012 01:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

College in My 40s: A Hard Road, But a Sweet Reward

I never thought I'd be a 40-something college student. Education was an important part of my upbringing. My parents are both well educated, my dad was a mechanical engineer and my mom was an English teacher. So it was quite a shock to them when I quit Cleveland State University before earning a degree to take a sales job. But, that was a different time. I thought, why do I need a degree if I already have a job? And, if I ever do need one, I can easily go back to school.

Before I left I promised my mom I would earn my degree eventually so she could have it to put on her wall at home. Twenty years later I had a wife, two kids, and a good job working as a plant operator for PPG Industries. The last thing on my mind was sitting in a classroom.

Then, one day a supervisor from another shift came up to me and started asking me about my future goals. I wasn't sure what to say to him; I was happy with my job. But, then he told me to think about my family -- there was only so far I could go in my career without a degree, so how would I support them long-term? How much longer could I work off hours without missing major milestones in my children's lives? And, how could I keep fending off my sons questions, when he would look at his mom's degree on the wall and say "Daddy, where's your degree?" The supervisor encouraged me to look PPG's tuition assistance program and I told him I would think about it.

Every week for the next month that supervisor asked me if I'd completed the application for tuition assistance. I dragged my feet at first. I wasn't sure if I was ready to go back to school or how I could do it while still keeping my job. And, to be honest, I was a little scared of having to go back to school with a bunch of 20-year-olds. After some careful thought and talking it over with my family, I decided that making some small sacrifices now (like sleep!) would lead to good things in the end.

So, I enrolled in classes at Bryant & Stratton College Online. Taking classes online helped because I was able to view lessons and complete assignments around my work and helping take care of my kids. But it certainly wasn't easy. I didn't realize how long it had been since I had done homework and studied for tests, and on top of the classes I was juggling caring for my newborn daughter. All of that made the first couple of semesters rough. Then just as I was getting a handle on balancing it all, I was laid off.

I immediately thought about quitting school to find full-time employment. But my company said they would continue to help pay for me to stay enrolled in classes part-time. This made me realize that education was really important. I knew that if I stayed in school it would mean a greater chance of my company hiring me back and if they couldn't, earning a degree would mean that I had a better chance of getting hired somewhere else.

I felt proud when, after four years of hard work, I finally earned my degree in May of this year: a bachelor's in business administration, general management. A pile of excuses held me back at first but earning my degree for my family and for myself felt terrific. If I could talk to any 40-something considering going back to school to earn their degree, I would say don't let fear and complacency hold you back. Earning a degree is worth it because it's going to help you be more valuable to your current employer and more marketable to your future employers. Plus, my mom finally has my degree to hang on the wall.