Back to School

“A dream deferred.” The elegant turn of phrase from the college admissions officer that described my return to the classroom after an absence of some thirty years. My decision to go back to school was a whim and decades in the making. I kept my acceptance letter secret for several days. I needed time to process — even now I’m not sure why. Maybe I didn’t believe I deserved a second chance. Maybe I didn’t believe in second chances at all.

A little history. I stumbled out of college in the early eighties exhausted. College was a juggling act, one I performed clumsily. My parents lacked the resources to send me to school so I worked my way through, waiting on tables, manning cash registers, baby sitting and house-sitting. I left a few units short of a degree, lured away by the offer of a permanent job in my chosen field. It wasn’t a hard choice. My younger self believed college was training for work. Anyway, learning for the sake of learning was something I couldn’t afford.

I spent the next years plying my trade, enjoying some success as journalist. I landed a couple of prestige jobs writing for national publications. Like many, I was laid off in the early aughts when the internet leveled newspapers and magazines.

After losing my job, I continued to work for the very online publications that were threatening my former employers. I was a ghostwriter for a few Silicon Valley executives. But, my heart wasn’t in it. Most of my energy was devoted to my immediate and extended families: my husband and infant daughter (born weeks before I lost my job), and our parents who had started to decline. Freelancing paid the bills — nothing more.

We came into some unexpected money. (I’ll talk about how to finance career changes like mine in future posts.) My husband encouraged me to take a break from work. Over time, I realized that what I wanted most was to go back to school — this time without distractions.

A year ago, I applied to Mills College, a women’s college in the Oakland hills and a school I loved when I toured it as a high school senior. Lucky for me, Mills considers “returners” to be valuable assets. (The evidence bears this out: Older students typically perform better than their younger classmates.)

Vala, the school’s admissions officer, told me I wouldn’t be the oldest co-ed to have graduated from Mills. A 92-year-old held that distinction. (When a professor asked what her future held, the woman, an art history major, said she was headed to a prestigious internship with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) With trepidation, I headed back to college with a simple agenda: To learn.