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Why I Went Back to School

It had been 32 years since I’d been in a classroom, and my kids are older than my classmates.

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Back To School, illustration, aarp, sisters
Maya Ish-Shalom
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Fall 2016. For a decade, I’d built an entrepreneurial career that brought me tremendous satisfaction in spite of the financial ups-and-downs that accompany small business ownership. From the outside, I seemed to be riding a wave of success. I’d become one of the media’s go-to experts in gender violence, my second book had been published and it was well-received and a campaign for the nonprofit organization I started had elevated our platform onto the national stage.

In spite of all of these accolades, I found myself increasingly unhappy with the world I had created for myself. The unpredictability of my income and the extremely long hours I had to work to keep my career moving forward were exhausting. So much of my identity was wrapped up in being a woman who wasn’t dependent on a 9-to-5 job to pay my bills. I was proud of that and I loved the freedom that entrepreneurship afforded me to take vacations or address personal issues. But as time went by, the return on investment for my work was diminishing. The hours I put in were not. To put it simply: I was burnt out.

I decided to look for a full-time job and give up my so-called freedom for the comfort of a consistent paycheck. When I did, I realized I’d painted myself into a corner because the job market wasn’t welcoming to a creative without a college degree. I met with a headhunter who told me the only work he could find for me was an administrative assistant position that paid what I’d earned back in 2004. All of my years of professional achievement amounted to nothing in the modern economy. I had become a cliché: overqualified and undereducated. This is how I became a freshman at 47 years old.

Instead of taking an unfulfilling job that paid me less than what my son was earning, I decided to go back to school and get my undergraduate degree. I started by earning a few credits at a community college to prove I had the aptitude for the coursework at a four-year college. My first few classes were a breeze. From the beginning, I knew the only way I would complete my degree was if I pursued it full-time. During my first semester, I applied to one school, an out-of-state women’s college with a program specifically tailored to students whose educational path had been disrupted. When I received the call that I’d been accepted, I cried.

I was nervous and excited on the first day of class. It had been 32 years since I’d been in a classroom and my new school had a very traditional student base. Out of 1,300 undergrads, only 10 were older than 24, which meant that 99.5 percent of my classmates were 17 to 22 years old. Looking around the room, I couldn’t help but think, Lord help me. My kids are older than my classmates. I worried that they would see me as an interloper in their tightknit community.

The first year was hard. I struggled to find a place to fit in and worried that I was too different. After spending the majority of my adult life in predominately Black spaces, it was a culture shock to be an “other” once again. Only 6 percent of the college’s students identify as Black and the campus itself is located in a white, racially homogenous area. I feared I’d be bombarded with racism, ageism and classism, all reasonable concerns given the school’s elite reputation.

It hasn’t been easy for me to make connections on campus. Not only are my fellow students much younger than me, the intensity of the coursework makes having a social life a challenge. The people I naturally connect with — faculty and administration — are discouraged from having friendships with students, so my socializing happens when I go back to my hometown on break.

When I’m in class, I make sure other students feel comfortable without sacrificing my own voice. As a public speaker and advocate, I’m used to speaking up and calling out, but most of the young women around me are at the stage in their lives where they’re still figuring out what they have to say. I’ve heard horror stories from some of my girlfriends who work in corporate settings about the way in which younger employees try to use them as support systems. I don’t want to be anyone’s mommy or mammy, so I take my time getting to know the students and maintain firm but caring boundaries with those who seek me out for advice.

It’s a privilege to be immersed in a full-time learning experience in a period of my life when I can truly appreciate the knowledge I’m taking in. I was a troubled single mom, pregnant at 19, and I wouldn’t have been able to benefit from the same kind of opportunity if I would have had it then. As a sociology major, I learn about subjects that play a huge role in shaping society, and I’m able to participate in conversations on a wide range of topics that a lot of my peers still need to catch up on. Learning why gender is a social construct, for example, and going to class with gender-nonconforming students is preparing me for a diverse workplace.

This hasn’t been an easy path. When you’re a full-time adult student, you still have to pay full-time adult bills while you’re working part-time. This means that I’ve had to say “no” to dinners and social gatherings because I’m on a fixed income, and I have to admit it’s been difficult at times to see my friends’ careers blossom while I’m sitting on the sidelines in school. I’m not jealous, but there are more times than I care to admit when I have to remind myself why I chose to sacrifice time and income in a period of life when many people are enjoying the fruits of their years of labor. But I’m halfway to my goal of having my degree and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.