Her knowledge was shaped by experience

Teaching college is often a mixed bag of rewards. Sometimes my class feels more like a buffet, where students come and go, often in the middle of my lectures, because of other obligations. Mostly these students have entered college right out of high school and have not yet come to grips with the higher expectations and greater responsibilities of advanced coursework.

But there is a category of student that gives everyone reason for hope. They're the so-called "nontraditional" students: those who, for one reason or another, didn't go to college when they were 18. They are older, more mature, and certainly more experienced. Because they have made a conscious choice to return to school, they generally attack their studies with enthusiasm.

I teach a course in marine biology at a college in central Maine. In order to give each student the individualized attention he or she deserves, I cap the class size at 15. Some years back, while calling out names from the roster on the first day, I noticed a gray-haired woman of about 70. She was hovering on the threshold, cradling her new books like a schoolgirl.

"I'm not on the roster," she volunteered, clearly self-conscious about all the seated 18-year-olds looking her over. "But I was wondering if I could just sit in on the first class, to see what it's about."

There were already 15 in the class, but this woman's eagerness impressed me, so I invited her to have a seat.

I began by chatting informally with the class to get a feel for how much knowledge they were bringing to the course. The legacy of open admissions is that professors are faced with very uneven crops of students, many of whom know relatively little about the world around them.

In marine biology I like to see if they know the difference between fishes and seagoing mammals. I hold up a sponge in the hope that someone will recognize it as an animal rather than a plant. I talk about the difference between a sea and an ocean.

As I probed and questioned, most of my new students remained silent. But Natalie, the older woman, was on the edge of her seat, volunteering answers with the alacrity of a game show contestant. In time, I felt as if it were just she and I engaged in a private discourse. At the end of class, she came up to me and apologized for being the "extra" student. "I certainly wish I could take this course," she said. "Will you offer it next year?"

Alarmed at the prospect of losing her, I acted quickly to assuage her concern. "I'll see you next class," I said.

Natalie turned out to be a vital and dedicated student. She commuted 50 miles each way to get to school - often in horrendous Maine winter weather - and never missed a class. She was engaged, enthusiastic, and hard-working. Beyond this, she was so friendly and helpful with my younger students that they were drawn to her. In Natalie I had more than a good student; I had a role model for the others.

Of course, not all older students do well. But they have an interesting advantage over their younger cohorts. It lies in the breadth and depth of their life's path. After having worked at a job, raised a family, and surmounted any number of personal and professional obstacles, they have an expansive world view. While a return to school may, at first, be intimidating for them, they tend to succeed because they are taking the trouble to wedge their studies into an already-full, multifaceted life. In other words, those who excel do so because they can't afford to fail.

On the other hand, school is almost all young students have ever known. In a way, this puts them at a disadvantage because college can seem like little more than a continuation of high school, lacking the sense of newness that often drives curiosity and achievement. I've had many excellent young students who do well because they are bright and hard-working and are in the habit of getting good grades. But those who don't succeed often take school for granted. Their approach, as a result, is relaxed to the point where they fall behind.

One day during the course, a young woman asked Natalie what her first job had been. "Well," she said, "I was a gunnery instructor in World War II." A gunnery instructor! The rest of the class was slack-jawed.

While they were fretting over describing clamshells, Natalie looked at it as simply something new to be learned in a lifetime filled with interesting chapters. Her sense of perspective and her energetic approach earned her the highest grades in the class.

Studies show that the average college undergraduate is now 27 years old. If this is true, then my finest hours of teaching are still ahead of me. I can't wait.

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