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It’s Not Too Late to Go Back to School

A few years back, Jacklyn started a thread on one of the AIUM’s discussion boards asking for “Advice on becoming a DMS.” The 30-something mother of two was looking for some insight on whether insiders recommended working in ultrasound and if they could offer guidance for starting a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer.

Mature students

Several people responded to Jacklyn’s questions offering helpful advice. Several of them even shared they were in their 30s or 40s, and also parents, when they started their sonography training and careers.

Michele Willens went back to university to finish her Bachelor degree after taking 40 years off. In her November 22, 2013 for The Atlantic, she states, “I am clearly not alone in my quest for academic validation: Well over half a million of the students enrolled in degree-granting institutions are over the age of 50”.

In addition to achieving a long time goal of “academic validation”,  there are numerous other reasons why “older students”—those not straight out of high school—are going to college, like seeking more education for a promotion or for the sheer love of continuous learning. Some are going back out of a deep desire or need to change careers.

The Challenges

Willens’ The Atlantic article shares some of the challenges middle-aged or older students may face when enrolled in college or university. For example, it’s easier for a “typical” 18 or 19-year-old to handle a full-time class load compared to a parent or someone holding down a job. Or someone in their 30s or 40s don’t tend to have the same endurance (i.e. they aren’t able to pull all-nighters as often) as someone in their late teens and 20s. But as one of Willens’ experts says, older students can get around this and succeed by being “craftier.”

Furthermore it may bother some mature students that it’s hard to bond with their younger classmates. But this feeling of there being a disconnect is often just temporary; as students get to know one another bonds can forge despite age differences. Plus in certain programs, such as graduate level, continuous education or even some healthcare programs, you might see that the majority of students are not arriving fresh from their high school graduation.

The Advantages

One of the advantages of returning to school when older, according to Willens, is that the student tends to be more purpose-driven and thus will be able to benefit more fully from the education they are receiving. Plus they will be able to apply the new knowledge to the greater wealth of experiences and lessons they’ve already had or acquired

Cognitive function may improve with age too. In his late 60s, neuroscientist James Fallons said (according to Willens) “I have never been more creative and productive” and “people are at their maximum cognitive abilities … in their 60s.”

Tips when going Back to School

You might also like: “Baby Boomers Going to College for Health Careers” where you can learn about the American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative.
  • Instead of memorizing the material, comprehend it and apply it to your life experiences or what is already know.
  • Before investing in a college program, research its career outcomes. Will the degree or certificate lead to a field that’s high in demand? (The Plus 50 Initiative, for example, emphasizes college programs within the healthcare, social services or education fields).
  • Do not necessarily pursue a four-year degree when you can meet your goals with a certificate or a two-year program.
  • Work with study groups.
  • Don’t shy away from asking your professors and instructors for help, even when they’re younger than you.
  • If applicable, enrol in a program that includes practical experience, like a work term or internship.

In Sally Kane’s About.com article “Too Old for School?”she shares testimonials of some who went to college/university in their 30s, 40s and 50s. One of them was Debbie McDonald who went back to school at 58 to start a career in medical billing and coding. She said, as quoted by Kane:

You just have to keep going and put yourself out there to other people because you’ll never know what comes back to you when you do…[going back to school] really proved to me that you’re never too old to learn.”


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