Young or old, learning is a lifetime pursuit

Look around and you can see the University graying along the edges. Statistics show that the student body of the University is changing. There are more students of color and different ethnic backgrounds, more female students and more “older” students than 30 years ago. This quarter I graduate from the University at the age of 46, after dropping out in 1971.
I have heard the line, “am I ever glad to see you — I thought I’d be the oldest one in this class” more than once. The first week of this quarter a student, young enough to be my daughter, came up to me and asked, “Are you the instructor for this course?”
The University is known by some of its students as “an easy school to get into, but just try to get out.” In one of my speech classes, several students used the phrase “fifth-year senior” in their introductory comments to the class. I confessed to being a 27th-year senior. It’s about time I earned my degree.
Before I go, I would like to share some experiences and parting thoughts.
My first class upon returning in 1996, a 5000-level science course, was almost my last. The professor asked, “Is there anyone in this class who is not a grad student?” I was the only person to raise a hand. Later that same day, the professor told me, “If you don’t do well on the mid-quarter, you can drop the course without it affecting your gpa.” I remember thinking, “What have I done to give this professor the idea I couldn’t succeed?” I got a D on that mid-quarter, but then things improved.
My adviser suggested the professor was looking out for my best interests. “Perhaps the professor was trying to help you avoid failure, or challenging you.” He may be right. I got a B in that course.
I took more than one class that was anything but stimulating. I participated in group projects with students who either hated group projects or were no-shows at crunch time. I remember term papers where the conclusion was the part where I was too tired to write anything more.
Probably the worst part of college for me was trying to get the classes I wanted, when I wanted them, and dealing with the bureaucracy. At times I was frustrated and exhausted. I often wanted to pull what hair I have left out by its roots.
On the other hand, I had classes I didn’t want to end, and group projects that were both fun to do and fun to be a part of. Don’t tell my wife Sandy, but I even had more than a few drinks with new friends, after one of the world’s most poorly worded multiple-choice finals.
Where else could a 46-year-old learn to skin small mammals in a mammology lab, or wake up at 4:30 a.m. on a near-frozen North Dakota prairie to see male grouse strutting their stuff on their mating territories during an ornithology field trip?
Where else could I debate the merits of the disappearing urban geese in an ethics and values in natural resources management class, and wonder just what did Plato mean by the Allegory of the Cave in science, religion and the search for human nature discussions?
I have always felt that anyone who can teach me something new is a friend. I have many friends among my instructors. I was always treated with respect. And I knocked on a lot of office doors. If I went to an instructor or adviser with a logical, practical alternative to some class, project or deadline, most were willing to compromise.
Returning to college wasn’t easy. Sandy and I have two teenage sons. Without their patience and help I couldn’t have done it. I work full time, graveyard shift; try to be a good husband and father; volunteer for causes I believe in; and occasionally have what might pass for a social life. Sometimes those things took a back seat.
To all students I say, don’t short change the University, its instructors or course work. If you don’t like something, jump through the hoops anyway. Better yet, work for change. Knock on doors — there may be new friends or allies behind them. Most of all, don’t short change yourselves. To the younger students I say, stick with it, and do it now. To the students graying around the edges I say, if an old dog like me could do it, so can you. Good luck!
Joe Schmitz is a University senior.Send comments to [email protected]