College campuses see influx of women reentry students

Not so long ago, people on college campuses who were over the age of 35 were automatically assumed to be faculty, staff, or visiting parents. Times have most definitely changed. The traditional student of 18 to 21 is still there, but chances are that right alongside is a person who may be trying to juggle children, spouse, and a job in addition to homework.

More than one-third of the students on college campuses these days are over the age of 25. In fact, of the 2.9 million student increase in college enrollment from 1972-1979, one-halfm of the new students were part-timers 25 years of age and older.

the influx of women reentry students is especially dramatic. among students age 35 and older, women outnumber men nearly 2 to 1. Between 1975 and 1978 the number of female students between the ges of 24 and 34 rose 187 percent. Women who have never worked outside their homes, women who have been happily or unhappily employed for years, and women who have contributed tremendous amounts of energy to volunteer work are all returning to school.

These women have a special set of concerns: "Will I be able to compete with the younger students?" "Where will I find the money to finance my education?" "Is it possible to add a student role to my juggling act without turning into someone I don't want to be?" "How do I select a college, get through registration -- and track down of a decent and legal parking spot?"

Following are the stories of three women at various stages of the reentry experience.

Helen Ranney of Mentor, Ohio, went back to school in 1971 at the age of 50, after being out of school 29 years. at the time, she was a volunteer counselor for a family planning agency. the position carried a great deal of responsibility, and Mrs. Ranney decided she wanted to be paid for her work and that she had a lot to learn. She entered a master's degree program in counseling at Kent State University.

The major concern for Mrs. Ranney was whether she would be able to keep up with the younger students. "I was absolutely convinced I wasn't smart enough or capable enough," she remembers. Her first semester, she actually got as far as dropping two of her three courses before another student urged her to reconsider. By midsemester, she saw that her work was comparable to that of her colleagues.

As a reentry student, Mrs. Ranney's family life also kept her hopping. Her husband Neil, then 60, was preparing to retire, and although very proud of his wife's student role, was looking forward to extended vacations together. The Ranney's have five children. The three eldest, all daughters and very supportive of their mother's decision, were away at college. The two teen-age boys were still at home.

Maintaining a B-plus average, Mrs. Ranney graduated with two master's degrees , one in rehabilitation counseling and the other in college counseling. She immediately found a job as a college career counselor and after two years accepted a position as a community organizer at a free clinic.

In 1979 Mrs. Ranney left the free clinic because she wanted to spend more time with her family. To achieve a good balance between her professional and family life, she has decided that she would not work more than 6-to 12-week stints.

"I am so glad I went back to school," says Mrs. Ranney. "My jobs have been substantial and challenging. My marriage seems better than ever. I feel good about myself, a lot more self-confident in reaching out and pursuing my own interests."

Sarah Beacom of Gaithersburg, Md., entered Montgomery College as a 33 -year-old freshman four years ago. "I'd always wanted to go to college," she says, "but couldn't at age 18 because of financial difficulties."

Mrs. Beacom's major problem was learning how to study again and to coordinate her study time with her other major commitments. She and her husband have three children who were seven through 10 years old when Mrs. Beacom decided to enroll at Montgomery.

The reentry process was made easier, she says, because of one of the initial courses that she took: "Options for Women." The class is designed to help women who are seeking to redefine life goals and aims. The class provided Mrs. Beacom with an abundance of information and moral support.

Mrs. Beacom feels that her purpose in school is not to gather skills for a job. "I'm here because I have a voracious appetite to learn everything I can," she says. Nevertheless, she does plan to pursue a career after her childdren have left home. She would like to find a position counseling reentry women.

There are many pluses for Mrs. Beacom because of her return to school. "I'm much happier. I feel vibrant and alive." she explains. "I have a whole new perspective and attitude toward life, and it feels som good!"

Better rapport with her children is a change that Mrs. Beacom says was brought about because of her return to school. "The insight and understanding that I have gained from the courses I have taken have helped tremendously," she says.

Her relationship with her husband has involved some "growing pains." "Ed liked the person I was beforem I went back to schol, and I have changed so much," Mrs. Beacom explains. She feels that ultimately their relationship will strengthen because of her commitment to and enthusiasm about school.

When Dana MacDemott of Berkeley, Calif., went to investigate a master's degree program in genetics, the adviser said they really didn't want a bored housewife in the department. Ms. MacDermott was pregnant with her firstborn at the time, and her husband felt strongly that early motherhood didn't mix well with being student. As a result, school was temporarily relegated to the back burner.

After her second son was born, Ms. MacDermott became anxious to find satisfying employment: "At age 30, I wondered what i would do with myself when I grew up. I began hoping for something that would become more than it is when you interact with it, something to get excited about."

Although she had no academic background in architecture, she was keenly interested and applied to the master's degree program at University of California, Berkeley. To her astonishment, she got in.

In the meantime, her marriage ended, and her need to provide financially for her family increased dramatically.At the time, she remembers thinking, "There's no way I can be really self-sufficient without additional training. I can't even type."

It didn't take long for Ms. MacDermott to immerse herself in her studies. Almost immediately, a special interest area became apparent -- set design. She took additional courses in the dramatic arts department, and her thesis, which involved a stage dance performance, was called: "The Architectural Element as an Integral Component of Dance."

Along the way, Ms. MacDermott and a partner bought an old house which they fixed up and resold. "We didn't make much money," she recalls, "but it was a fantastic education in the politics of building."

Ms. MacDermott remarried last year. Her new husband, an electrician, has been very supportive of her student role and career plans. Degree now safely in hand, Ms. MacDermott wants to do free-lance set and costume design and to continue remodeling and restoration work. With more design experience under her belt, she hopes to find a faculty position in that field.

In reflecting on her return to school, Ms. MacDermott says: "The first year was extremely difficult. But once you are able to select the people you take courses from, the situation changes. I loved every minute of this last year. There is a tremendous joy in perceiving yourself struggle with a skill, begin to grasp it, and finally move toward mastery."

Most returning students will tell you that at some point along the reentry route, one or more problems seemed insurmountable. However, a study done at California State University, Hayward, indicates very successful reentry experiences. More than three-quarters of the women reentry students sampled there felt that their time spent in college had been worth it insofar as it expanded their employment opportunities. Ninety-six percent felt that going back to school had been worth it in terms of their own personal growth. Another survey showed that 92 percent of the women sampled reported increased self-confidence as a direct result of returning to school.

Many college campuses have special services for reentry students, but their offices may be housed under a completely different name from the one you are expecting. Try Reentry, Continuing Education, Adult Services, Special Student Services, the Women's Center, Academic Advising, or any combination of letters you see that look vaguely suspicious. ACE, ENCORE, WIN, ABLE, and WREP are all names of reentry programs.

Nowm is a very good time to consider a return to school!

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.