To the Editor:
Last May at age 48, with little prior knowledge of science, I earned an M.S. in biology. Your issue on age in the academy, especially Susan Sarver’s “Tapping into the Wisdom of the Ages” (The Chronicle, September 17), evoked many issues that I faced as an older student.
When I began this M.S., I already held other advanced degrees. In 2003 I had earned a Ph.D., and briefly taught in the field of musicology. Yet I had long wished to more directly pursue my interest in environmental issues, so when my husband accepted a job at Appalachian State University in Western North Carolina, I relocated with him and finally completed the M.S. there. No “trailing spouse” ever had a better chance to literally hit the trails — in the mountain forests where I developed an interest in plant ecology.
Yet on campus, I often felt awkward surrounded by students in their teens and twenties, and the struggle to find a peer group was sometimes lonely and tiring. This drove home for me how deep the assumption runs that university study is for the young — a prejudice rendered almost invisible by its very ubiquity. While the widespread concept of university as a rite of passage into adulthood serves many adolescents well, it tends to marginalize older students.
Paradoxically, though, age and experience often grant enormous insight into who we are, and why we want to learn. In my forties, I felt sure of my path in a way that had previously eluded me. Why did it take so long to realize that science is fascinating, and I could do well in it? What I can say for sure is that it was exactly the right thing once it finally happened. I begin the next phase of life with new employment options, and a transformed understanding both of the physical world around me, and of the potential within me.
Universities should strive to recruit and encourage qualified older students, both for their development as individuals and because it uplifts all of society when people pursue high-quality learning throughout life. Many thanks to The Chronicle for illuminating this process.
Catherine J. Cole