Old Guy On Campus – Early Reflections


Several weeks ago I wrote about being back on campus and auditing a Sociology class at our local university, where my son is a freshman this year.  The school has a ‘Parents on Campus’ program that allows parents to take up to two classes each semester for free.  Before starting the class, I realized that it probably would be awkward to be a fifty year old guy on campus.

Since Sociology focuses on societal norms, our first assignment for the semester was to write a reflection paper on breaking a social norm.  That is, do something that violates the customary way of doing things and record the reaction of others.  Examples suggested were to stand the ‘wrong’ way in an elevator, wear a suit and tie to a campus football game, or walk backwards on the sidewalk between classes.  Simple stuff, for the most part.

Since I’m just auditing the class (not taking it for graded credit), I’m not required to do the assignments, but I thought that my experience being the ‘Old Guy on Campus’ certainly fulfilled the the requirement of breaking a social norm.  Many MrFireStation.com readers asked to give them an update on what this experience is like, so I thought I would write up this reflection and post it here:


First of all, there are very few adult students on campus at this university.  I unscientifically watched students walking between classes one Tuesday morning and counted 185 walk by until I saw another person that looked like an ‘adult learner’.  I even posted on the parents network Facebook page (652 members) and only one parent replied that they are also taking advantage of the ‘Parents on Campus’ program.  Most parents hadn’t ever heard that the program was offered (although quite a few were interested).


People my age, for the most part have really odd reactions to me being back on campus.  I’ve talked to quite a few friends, family, and acquaintances about my new endeavor. Most start with complete surprise and almost always ask “WHY would you want to do that?” with a clear note of incomprehension in their voice.  They all find it very funny that I have a Student ID card and look at it with amazement.

Despite the high regard the idea of ’lifelong learning’ is commonly held among adults, it seems few people would actually consider going back to college themselves to take a class or two.  Often people will ask me, “you already have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree – why would you do that?”  For these folks – and I’m surprised how many I have encountered – going to college is only for young people and only about taking classes to get a degree to get a job.  They don’t seem to understand the point of just auditing a class for the pure experience of learning.  Clearly, this is a problem for universities that want to position themselves as centers of lifelong learning.

It is also odd how often people inquire about possibly devious motives for why someone my age would take a class.  Many people’s memories of college isn’t being in class – it is going to parties, hanging out in the dorms, and being involved in late night campus high-jinx.  Adult friends half-seriously ask me how much of that side of college life I am going to participate in.  They ask if I am going to be a nuisance on campus or hang out in my son’s dorm room?  Middle-aged guys will almost always mockingly ask me if I’m there to “check out the college girls?”  More than a few people have commented that my situation mirrors Rodney Dangerfield in the movie “Back to School.”  These reactions are quite curious because they point to an initial disconnect of an adult merely seeking out lifelong learning at a college campus.

Once people think about going back to college for a little while, they start to come around to viewing it as an interesting thing that they would like to do.  Being an adult learner in early retirement allows me to just focus on a subject for the sake of learning – independent from everything else going on.  I can soak up the readings, enjoy the class discussion, and immerse myself in a topic that I haven’t thought about for a long time.  This is the benefit of lifelong learning that people would like to return to college for – even if it seems like a funny thing to do at first.


Students, on the other hand, basically ignore me in class for the most part (although they seem to ignore each other too).  This brings it’s own kind of social awkwardness.  So far, I would describe the overall reaction I get is polite, but a bit reserved.

We have done a few in class activities, but there will be more interaction as the semester goes on.  Most of them do not know that I am only auditing the class, but yet they seem to know that I am not on campus for the same reason they are.  One student asked me if I was evaluating the professor – like a ‘secret shopper’ who sits in the back row of class.

In the couple class activities that we have done, my younger classmates have been very welcoming to my presence and happy to have me involved in the class discussion and involved in the in class projects.  Still, one interaction I had with a student was a bit telling: I was speaking with a couple of my classmates and explaining that I am enrolled in a ‘Parent on Campus’ program.  Immediately, one of the students and asked if my son was in our class?  I said no, and commented rhetorically “that would be kind of awkward to have your parent in class with you, wouldn’t it?”  She immediately burst out “Oh … that would be HORRIBLE.”   You could tell it immediately took her to a bad place with perhaps a ‘hovering parent’.  She didn’t mean anything disrespectful by it, but it was funny to see her reaction all the same.


For my part, I try to be as inconspicuous on campus as possible and play it cool.  I wear sunglasses walking between buildings.  I take the less traveled sidewalks.  I sit in the back row of the room (where the cool kids always sit).  Basically, I try to blend in as much as possible and not be a nuisance.  At first, I wasn’t sure how a 50-year-old guy should be dressing on campus – should I be dressed like a staff member, even wear a tweed jacket?  No, I tend to dress more casually – more like a ‘real’ student.   Still, some student fashion norms don’t make sense for a 50-year-old like wearing a baseball hat backwards.

Even the small social connections are interesting for me on campus. Last week, I parked in the campus parking ramp before class next to a commuter student. He had the kind of car that I had when I was in college – an old, rusted, beat-up piece of transportation. Next to him, there was an open space where I parked my shiny, red sports car – clearly unlike any car a traditional college-aged student would ever have on campus.  He gave my car a thumbs up, and held the staircase door open for me as we both slung on our backpacks and walked down to the sidewalk.  In just a minute, we became indistinguishable as students on campus except for our age.

I certainly don’t feel particularly stigmatized or labeled by being on campus, other than as maybe “adult student”.  That’s a term that doesn’t really have a positive or negative connotation.  That said, perhaps it’s just my belief system, but it does seem more awkward to be a middle-age guy on campus then it would be to be a middle-aged woman.  I think society expects that men my age should be working – in the prime of their career.  I’ve researched before that only about 2% of people retire at 50 years old and I would guess that a definite majority of those 2% would be women.  Many more moms stayed home when their kids were little than dads, and they are more likely to be found looking for activities to do now that their kids are in college.


Overall, it’s an interesting experience to be the ‘fish out of water’ in this activity and I would recommend it to others.  I am probably enjoying the experience of being on campus as much as the class itself.  Since there is no real downside to the social awkwardness, it is fun to live it first hand – experiential learning for sure.  At the same time, I don’t really know what people are thinking of my silliness.  All I can really judge is their reactions.

In closing, I would say that while universities often want to position themselves as the start of lifelong learning for their students, most people don’t seem to be able to think beyond college as anything more than training for a future career when they are young. 

One close friend mocked my new adventure by commenting: “If you study real hard I bet you can FINALLY make something of yourself  …! “

ImageCredit: MrFireStation.com

26 thoughts on “Old Guy On Campus – Early Reflections

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with this! I’ve always thought it would be fun to go back to school at some point just to learn and enjoy interesting material and lectures without the pressure of grades or a full courseload. I recall a few older adults in some of my college lectures, and I always had a ton of respect for their putting up with being with a bunch of 20-year-olds. Some of them were clearly working toward a bachelor’s degree rather than auditing classes, and it was apparent in the amount of effort they put in, notes they took, etc. (while some of the kids would nap through class instead)

    Hang out there long enough and maybe you’ll even want to star rocking that baseball hat backwards look!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No – the backwards baseball cap is NOT going to work! Thanks for your comments. It is fun to take some classes – I expect I’ll continue to do it after this semester.


  2. Interesting report, thanks for sharing! I will definitely consider going back to school once FI is reached.

    Btw, do you feel lessons interesting? The few times I’ve been walking among the rooms of my old University it seemed to me that it may be less interesting than expected. Young lecturers, shallow topics (that need to be tuned toward teenagers), noisy classmates… I see myself asking too many questions to the teachers and/or being too pedantic. Any suggestion? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do find the subject interesting, even though it is ‘only’ a 100-level class. I think as we get deeper into Sociology there will be topics that fight with my Libertarian/Pro-Business outlook on the world. That was one of the reasons I took the class though.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a terrific quote – thanks for sharing! I read a Truman biography about 20 years ago after visiting his home in Independence, MO. I wonder what he would make of the current election??

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I envy you. This is still on my bucket list no matter how awkward it might be. 🙂 Still, your insight is very helpful. Isn’t it funny how people think it’s weird that we would actually take a class just for love of learning?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The reaction of friends & family is the biggest surprise for me. I took the notion of lifelong learning as an accepted virtue and a college campus the best place to do it. Not a lot of folks think of it that way … at least initially.


  4. Interesting status report for sure!

    It is unfortunate that society thinks learning is temporal and places people, according to learning age, into “buckets”. So wrong on so many fronts.

    I can imagine that this experience is way more learning than you ever imagined in terms of generational perspective, societal norms and not least, the power in observing others. I also wonder if it is a little taste of what the awkward kid in school may go through as he
    / she distance themselves from others because they don’t fit completely in – wether it be beliefs, clothing or music tastes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – being back on campus is good learning on so many levels. It is a great generational escape for me 2x a week too!


  5. Who wouldn’t take advantage of that program??? I take many classes locally as part of several lifelong learning programs but none of them are of the caliber of a full-on college course. We know ourselves so much better (at least we should) when we’ve gained a few years and can bring that perspective into the classroom. Win-win for all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have only talked to one other person who is taking advantage of the parents-on-campus program. I first heard about it a year ago and I knew it would be for me the first time I heard about it. (I also get in football games free with my student ID!)


  6. next time try a public university, there are lots of people your age on campus — people who have lost their jobs due to globalization and outsourcing, making a new field required for them. Your early retirement is breaking social norms right now. Likewise, my entry to education for a ‘fun’ retirement career is seen as breaking social norms by my peers. Remember, Boomers are known for breaking social norms :). Have fun and ‘boom’ away.


  7. “One student asked me if I was evaluating the professor – like a ‘secret shopper’ who sits in the back row of class.” hahaha that is great. You should have said ‘nah your dad sent me to see if you were actually studying tee hee”.

    So sad about that view about learning – it is so much more fulfilling when you are actually picking a class for no reason other than just love of learning and interest!


  8. Funny that you are taking Sociology and are doing kind of a “sociological experiment” by being retired at 50 and taking classes. lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – it’s a great topic for my own experience. Socialization, culture & norms are all in play in the classroom and out!


  9. I STILL have nightmares about forgetting to study for a final in college, or getting completely lost, so the idea of going back for my Masters no longer has any allure, but auditing courses actually does sound like fun.

    Back when I was getting my BA, it was actually not weird at all that we had a couple of 30-50 year olds in the class. The 50 year old woman was back for her degree after great success in her first career and she was one of my favorite classmates. It never occurred to me that they were odd for being there, but that might be because I also worked side by side with older people at that time in my life too so seeing teenagers side by side with people who could be their parents was quite normal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – that was my experience at college too. There were always a couple adult students in each class. This university is not quite like that. I can relate to your dream – they say that that is a common nightmare!


  10. I would love to be the old guy on campus! I don’t know why, but some of us are just born to be students. If I could do anything, literally anything, it’d probably be a lifetime student.

    My fiance’s mother (so my future mother-in-law) has been taking art classes under the state’s Senior Citizen Education Program. You have to be 62 years old to qualify, unfortunately, but once you are, you can take classes for $10 per credit. Pretty sweet deal and a nice way to keep the mind sharp.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m taking Sociology now, but Art History is one of the other courses I looked at. I was an Art minor in college and would love to have a ‘refresher’.


  11. Since I’ve taught college classes and had a few adult students, this is really interesting to me! As a teacher education prof – adult students weren’t that surprising. People going back to school to get certified as a teacher from a previous degree program. Your comment about life-long learning is really interesting. I’m surprised by the reaction you get from others. I’d love to go back and take some finance or economics classes. I was a biology/chemistry/education and leadership student. Good thing PF blogs exist or I’d still be working!


  12. Thanks for the follow-up post; I’ve been waiting for it. A few thoughts….

    I’m surprised at the reaction you’re getting from your peers. My first thought was pure jealousy that you get to continue learning! People keep exercising their muscles throughout their lives, what’s so different about exercising the mind?

    I was really hoping that the social norm you wanted to bust was talking openly about personal finance, debt, and net worth 🙂

    Finally, your ‘secret shopper’ comment got an a literal LOL from me while I’m sitting here on the bus. Now everyone thinks I’m the “crazy bus guy” that laughs at himself 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right that talking about finances openly is a definite social no-no. I break that norm through this blog (which a lot of my friends & family read), but I don’t get too specific in terms of what I include.


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