By Joseph William Humes
Some magazines and advertisements tell us that forty is the new twenty. If forty is the new twenty, then I am "twenty." The problem is, no one else who truly is twenty on the campus of Bloomsburg University where I presently attend college believes it, and knowing that I’ll "truly" be fifty in ten years, neither do I.
The silver needles that are prominent throughout the diminishing darkness of my hair show my age like a marked man in the movie Logan’s Run. What? Don’t remember it? If you’re over thirty-five or a Sci-Fi fan, you probably would. But regardless of all that stuff, my age and station in life didn’t stop me from going to college. And as a matter of fact, those were the very reasons that caused me to go back to school in the first place.
I blame Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board for my decision to make a serious go of college at the age of thirty-seven after a few failed attempts over the years. It was a late Sunday afternoon in early February 2005, and I had just awakened after sleeping most of the day since I work overnights at a juvenile detention center. Whether my sleep was long and fitful or not, I can’t remember, although I know that most of the time, it isn’t. I came downstairs and the first thing I did was go to my computer and dial up the Internet to check my email and read some news. An article that caught my attention that day was about a speech Mr. Greenspan made at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland about the eighteenth century economist Adam Smith and his seminal book, Wealth of Nations. The article I read did two things to me that day: It caused me to experience both interest and discontent. The "interest" part for me is easy. History, politics, religion, economics— they’re all topics I enjoy reading and talking about. The "discontent" part is a little more complex.
It wasn’t so much a particular "thing" in the article as it was what the article represented for me at that moment— discontent. Discontent with my own life and, especially, my lack of a college degree. Discontent in the limited kind and type of jobs I could get without one. Discontent that I was pushing forty and still feeling unsettled. Discontent that I felt like I hadn’t accomplished one damn thing in my life of any real importance, not so much in this world, but to myself. And it was this discontent that manifested itself the next morning after I came home from work.
I must have been in a bad mood, I’m not sure anymore, but I know I growled about my job and my recent bout of discontentment to my wife. I got so frustrated I kicked the right side of my computer desk (A cheap piece of furniture), causing some screws to pull loose and move that side of the desk out of joint. What I think I truly wanted to do was to kick myself for twenty years of bad decisions. That evening, I began the process of enrolling myself at Luzerne County Community College’s Shamokin campus.
At the Shamokin campus, there’s no such thing as "campus life" since everyone is a commuter. There wasn’t a strong, pronounced distinction between traditional and non-traditional students since I had seen more people my own age attending classes. Of course, I can only speak for those who went to class during the evening, so the daytime might have leaned more towards the traditional student. But the distance I had to travel and the classes were very convenient and in less than two years, I accomplished the task of getting my "gen-eds" out of the way and earning an Associate in Arts Degree in General Studies. Okay. Now what? What I found was that the experience of going back to school and receiving my degree did not satisfy the "undercurrents," or hidden reasons why I wanted to go back to school. Let me explain.
No matter where I was employed, the first thing I looked for (Since the money question was already settled) after I went to work was ‘work atmosphere’: What sort of people would I be working with and how would I get along with them? For me, work atmosphere can make or break the workplace for me. I’ve stayed at some jobs longer than perhaps I should have due to a good comradery with my fellow co-workers and I’ve quit jobs due to that same "lack of chemistry." For me, it was about the people because in most of the jobs I’ve held, it certainly wasn’t about the money! The same holds true for college.
Initially, I think I was hoping, maybe expecting, that same comradery I look for in the workplace would translate into the realm of college. At Luzerne, I found that wasn’t the case. Like everyone else there, I went to class, did my schoolwork, received my grade, went home. Did I accomplish my goals? If you mean quenching the discontent that got me to go back to school in the first place, the answer is no. What I did learn was that school is work, work, and work. Just like anyone else, there are subjects that I’m good at (English and writing) and not so good at (Economics, to my disappointment). I also learned that getting my gen-eds out of the way at a fraction of the cost that most universities charge per credit hour is pretty smart, too. So, receiving my Associate’s degree, what do I do next? I continued my education at Bloomsburg University.
There are pros and cons about being forty and going to college. One good thing is that I don’t have to take an SAT as part of gaining admission. Another thing that I find pretty neat is that I feel I’m treated differently by my professors because of my age— With respect and not like a "kid," thank you. The cons? One is the commute. Another is that, just because I am in a "young environment" doesn’t automatically make me a peer with the students who are half my age. But if there is one thing I cannot stand about being a non-traditional student at Bloom U is the silence. Silence? What silence? There’s noise everywhere on campus!
Not for me. I’m not deaf, but most of the time I sure feel mute as I mosey my way around campus. Because I am a non-traditional student with other obligations along with my college studies, I know I am not an integral part of university life. I not only know it, I feel it. Most of my time on campus is spent in prolonged silence and sometimes, I feel about as visible as a ghost. I envy the way the traditional students go about their time here, talking to people they know and creating a life for themselves independently of their parents. The newness and scariness for some of being on their own for the first time, which soon is replaced by new friendships, relationships, and acceptance. When you’re a non-traditional student, like myself, there doesn’t seem to be any time for that. Being forty, I have to take what I am doing a lot more seriously than perhaps a traditional student would, since time— the kind a traditional student possesses— isn’t necessarily on my side. I hope my college education and experience will eventually assuage that original discontent that brought me this far on my journey. At forty, time is of the essence and not something to be wasted.