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:
HOW UNUSUAL IS THIS?
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).
REACTIONS FROM OTHER ADULTS
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.
REACTIONS OF OTHERS – STUDENTS
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.
MY REACTIONS TO BEING ON CAMPUS
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 …! “