THE IRONY gods were toying with me. The day I picked up my student ID I also received my AARP member card in the mail. Was this a sign from above warning me of the challenges of biostatistics, or merely a great opportunity to choose between a student and a senior discount when I go to the movies?
Despite a rewarding career as a biotech and technology lawyer, I found myself in my early 50s pining to pursue my longtime dream of a career in policy. I had originally studied social work in college, but then went to law school, thinking it would make me more employable and help me make a difference.
I have few regrets in life, but speeding through college and law school is one of them. (At a reunion lunch, one of my law professors affectionately reminded me that not only was I his youngest student ever but also that I really “didn’t know my ass from my elbow back then.”) I had skipped my senior year of high school, expeditiously fulfilled degree requirements, received my diplomas, and entered the workforce. I should have been in less of a rush.
And so a few years ago I cautiously dipped my toes back into the academic waters by spending a winter auditing a policy class. It was fascinating. Two years later, after more than 100 informational interviews with people in health care fields and the guidance of a wise career counselor, I faced my first day of school as a master of public health student at Tufts University School of Medicine.
This was a scary proposition. At 52, after practicing law for more than half of my life, my profession was intertwined with my very identity. I had developed core competencies, a network of colleagues, and confidence in my abilities. Now I was leaving all of that behind and starting over.
Moreover, with two twentysomething children still on the family payroll — including, I should note, a daughter studying at the same school I would be attending — the financial implications of making this change were big. In addition to sizable tuition payments, there was the loss of my regular income. My husband, for the first time in almost 30 years of marriage, would essentially be the sole breadwinner. He joked that it would be easier and cheaper if I’d just buy a convertible like any normal suburbanite in midlife crisis.
And then there was my own lingering voice of self-doubt. After being away from school for three decades, did I have it in me to succeed in this journey?
ON THE FIRST DAY of school I tried to appear nonchalant as I took my seat in my health care, policy, and politics course. But in all honesty, I felt as if there were a neon arrow above my head flashing “ancient one.” The inescapable truth is that although I feel young inside, gravity and the passage of time have taken their toll. I only have to glance in the mirror to understand why campus personnel and students mistakenly assume I am a professor or administrator. I look my age.
Fortunately, the class was in a relatively small room with 20 chairs arranged in a semicircle. I could not help noticing the absence of blackboards and overhead projectors with their waxy pencils. There was a sea of laptops and iPads. The professor arrived. PowerPoint presentations and multimedia videos were projected on a screen. At first I felt awkward. But each week the routine and surroundings became more familiar, and I eventually fell into a comfortable rhythm.
Looking back, I assumed this experience would be completely devoted to learning new subjects and skills. And why not? When you first leave home after high school, it is a chance to discover who you are and what you want to be. But I already had a strong sense of who I was, which had been forged through a life of trials and tribulations, successes and failures. So I was surprised to find that this journey was yielding much more.
To start, there is the luxurious experience of taking the time to think and learn. There is something decadent about soaking up the lectures, contemplating the readings, and researching assignments. I have tried to take the advice of an acquaintance to worry less about getting A’s and instead focus on the opportunities at school. Great advice, but I’ve realized that overachieving behaviors do not fade away with age. This is my academic swan song — I want to excel. I can only hope my professors do not have the ability to track how often I have checked to see whether grades are posted.
This experience has also catapulted me into the wireless world of the millennial generation. Despite my inability to use the television remote control, I’ve always assumed I was technologically savvy. After all, the Web was second nature, I used Facebook and Instagram to glimpse into my children’s lives, and I had long ago traded my yellow legal pad for a mouse pad. Yet I found a much deeper generational divide than I expected. Not only do I text with one finger not two, but it takes me longer than younger students to navigate today’s academic infrastructure. Registering for classes, handling assignments, accessing library resources — it’s all done online now. While many of us baby boomers still print hard copies to read, it is perceived as a needless expense as well as environmentally and politically incorrect.
Then there is the matter of power cords. Not only do you need to bring them with you to class to keep your laptop alive, failure to survey the floor when you enter the room can result in ripping classmates’ cords out of electrical sockets while simultaneously drenching yourself and those around you with the dregs of your coffee. Or so I’ve heard.
The most unexpected but enriching experience has been becoming part of a new community, developing new relationships, and seeing old ones take on new dimensions. At the core are the professors, who bring unbridled dedication, passion, and humor to the classroom. However, many are also my peers; we share a common frame of reference. Compared with my earlier days as a student, I have a deeper understanding of the life stories they share and increased sensitivity to those human elements to which they allude but elect not to go into. There’s a richness and depth to their lectures that I would not have appreciated years ago. I’m also unabashedly confident when asking for clarification. I am here to learn.
Although the professors may remember that the Beatles were Paul McCartney’s first big band, there is a huge generation gap between the other students and me. I was curious how this would be perceived and how that would affect my experience. When I first compared notes with other older students, I was warned that “professors love you, students hate you” and “students look at you and think of their mother.” Another older student laughed when I asked whether he was perceived as “dad.” He told me that his biggest generational challenge was keeping up when he went out drinking with his classmates.
I then polled several younger students. I was told that when working on projects together, they “think of me as a colleague” but that my presence makes them “take joint projects more seriously.” I guess that’s good. A few mentioned that their own parents had returned to school and that they thought it was “kinda cool.” My 23-year-old daughter, Molly, explained that when she had an older student in her midst it was initially “weird,” but that she grew to appreciate the contribution of life experience. My 26-year-old, Alison, warned me not to make dinner for the study group I was hosting to avoid being perceived as a den mother.
Fortunately, I have felt warmly received by my smart and tenacious fellow students. We are all in the same boat — balancing homework assignments, exams, and life events. While several of them have come straight from college, many have also had jobs, some are married, and a few have children. Each brings a unique perspective that is shared in classroom discussions and the conversations in between. We do not dwell on age differences. I suspect I may occasionally be perceived as a mother figure, but it doesn’t bother me. There are also times, such as when I sense the impatience of youth, that I see classmates as daughter or son figures.
Although I have adopted a new community, I haven’t abandoned my old friends and colleagues. For some, the response has been raised eyebrows, followed by a smiling declaration that they “can’t imagine having to deal with schoolwork now.” But more often, they become reflective. Statistically, baby boomers are less likely to take traditional retirement. As a result, many of us are wondering what’s next. We often end up talking about what our goals and aspirations were and are and how we can continue to live meaningful lives and give back. Many of my friends end up commenting on the serendipitous turn of events that shaped their lives.
Perhaps the most transformative relationships have been those with my family. To my surprise, Molly proudly tells friends that her mom went back to school. I’ve found that this is not an uncommon reaction among other older students’ families. I think it results from our children’s transition from thinking of us solely as parental units to glimpsing the underlying human beings. Molly also told me that my return to school made her realize that she can have more than one career in her lifetime and that age need not be a limitation. As a parent, it is nice to know she considers me a role model. (That said, she is highly amused — and quick to roll her eyes — when I’ve asked her for help uploading a photograph to my class blog or navigating a new app on my phone.)
The impact on Alison has been a bit more complicated. She is enrolled in the MD/MPH program at Tufts. Although we do not have the same public health classes, we have overlapping professors, and a few of her friends have been in my classes. This provides us with an expanded panel of topics for discussion beyond those typical between mother and daughter and allows us to debate and discuss health care issues as one professional adult to another. It has also meant my activities and whereabouts are sometimes texted back to Alison. Occasionally the elevator door opens and we are surprised to see each other. While I love running into her, I remind myself that as her mother, I must be careful not to invade her space. Since this was her school first, in some sense we have a reverse legacy. She is a tough act to follow.
The shifting roles also have affected my marriage and altered the household dynamics. My husband has been overwhelmingly supportive, but I am still acutely aware of the additional responsibilities he has taken on and the compromises he has made. The time constraints of school mean that a weekend “date” has increasingly meant adjacent seats at our local library and that during finals weeks our refrigerator is frightfully empty. I sometimes feel guilty that my choice is affecting him in so many ways. On the other hand, dinner conversations are more lively, we have numerous debates on current health care issues, and he has a very happy wife.
WITH MORE than half of my course work completed, I can see the finish line. As I approach my graduation, scheduled for August, I’m increasingly asked what I’ll do with my master’s in public health. It is a legitimate question. The short answer is that I want to work on projects with interesting organizations that focus on health care delivery and technology.
But for me there is a more important question that is steeped in what I hope to accomplish in life.
When I decided to return to school, my 78-year-old mother was facing end-stage pancreatic cancer. My sister and I thought we were the ones taking care of her. In retrospect, I realize she was intent on ensuring that when she left this world she would have imparted the fundamental values by which she lived her life. She believed a rich life is one in which you embrace new experiences, take risks, and are not afraid to follow your dreams. It is not about a big house with matching towels. She made sure her last months were filled with life, love, and cheesecake (which she often ate before dinner). It was she who gave me the courage and chutzpah to take the leap and follow my dream.
So for me, the real question is less about “what are you going to do with the degree.” It is more about “what did you experience on your journey?” And to that I would answer “joy and a sense of fulfillment.” My mother would have been proud.
Lisa Carron Shmerling lives in Newton. Send comments to email@example.com.
Estimated number of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions nationwide in fall 2011
Number of students 50 or older
Number of middle-aged students expected to be enrolled in higher education or continuing ed by 2015, according to one estimate
Advice for successfully navigating a big career change.
By Pattie Hunt Sinacole
Develop a crisp and articulate pitch
Before you meet any contact, be prepared to present the next step in your career (or at least possible next steps) in an enthusiastic and logical way. Even at the earliest stages of your transition, no one will want to provide assistance — or know how to help you — if it sounds as if your search is a lark. Your pitch should be succinct and confident. Test it on a few trusted friends, colleagues, and family members, and Refine if necessary.
Highlight your value
Hiding indications of your age on your resume is silly — anyone who meets you in an interview will be able to guesstimate it. But whether you’re younger or older, don’t dwell on it, either. Focus instead on your value: What skills and experience do you bring to the table? Companies look for a return on any new hires, so think about what you can offer. Will you bring in revenue? Improve efficiencies? Solve a problem?
Expand your network
Even if you are switching fields, you will likely land your new role through your existing network. When you meet a contact, you are not just interacting with that one individual. If you prove yourself a credible professional, you are also accessing that individual’s entire network, which could include people in the field you are targeting. Also, try to attend events sponsored within your new industry — these will help you build your next network.
Use technology effectively
Don’t rely solely on technology, but do use Linkedin, Twitter, and other social-networking tools to your advantage. It demonstrates that you are current and tech-savvy, regardless of your age. And don’t just log in and update your Linkedin profile. Join groups, especially those that will teach you more about your new industry.
Explain what skills are transferable
You may be targeting a new field, but the skills you developed in the old one are among your most valuable assets. If an employer wants someone skilled at building relationships with community leaders, talk about your ability to be a strong business developer in your former industry. If you were particularly skillful in mentoring and training new employees, make sure that you showcase that skill if you are looking to enter the education field. Give examples.