When I went to college in the early 1970s, and then to graduate school immediately after because I didn’t want to have to go out into the world and get a real job, I definitely learned a few things. I acquired a passing knowledge of politics because I minored in Government, and I learned how to conduct interviews and write news stories because I majored in Journalism. Fortunately, I also learned a few things about myself, which allowed me to move forward in my life and make at least a couple of good decisions along the way.
But all in all, as I later said at the end of every semester of my career as a community college instructor, college is wasted on the young.
Few 18- or 19-year-olds—including me when I was plodding through my general education courses—have any notion how lucky they are to be able to read, think, and share ideas on a daily basis. Many of them are in college because getting an education is what you’re supposed to do after high school, not because they know what they want to do with their lives and are headed out on their path to get there. I love the idea of a gap year, more hands-on experiences, or at least slowing down the process in some way so that they can glean a bit of life experience and knowledge at the same time. But this is not an essay about how we can make college more useful and efficient for young people. It is much more a story about the wonders of a college experience at this end of life.
When I was nearing retirement and knew I wanted to return to my original dream of being a writer, I enrolled in a low residency Creative Nonfiction program at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. At the end of two years, I would have a Master of Fine Arts degree, but it turns out I would have much more than that. Before I went to my first residency, the people running the program were great about answering all of my questions and connecting me with other students, so I knew what I was getting into. No one could have explained to me how this experience would end up changing my life.
Returning to school like this has provided me with what I would easily call the best education I’ve ever received.
After four residencies at the college and two years of intense reading, writing, and meeting via phone and email with my various mentors and fellow students, I graduated last summer. In retirement, I didn’t really need another master’s degree, but every conversation, workshop, and piece of advice I received was vital, not only to my work as a writer, but to my soul. In short, those two years took me onto a path that seems to proceed in the exact direction I want to head.
I came back to Goucher this past weekend to attend the graduation of some of my friends who started the program a year after I did. I remember seeing a few alumni during my first residency and figured they must live close by to come all this way just for graduation weekend. But now I’m at that end of things and realize physical proximity has nothing to do with it. These people are my tribe in a way that few people are. We all feel it. I have a couple of very close writer friends at home, but the time at Goucher is like entering a world in which everyone lives and breathes the exact things I do. It is not only stimulating and inspiring to be there, but encouraging, humbling, challenging, and so thought provoking I can rarely turn my head off enough to sleep at night when I’m there.
Not exactly because I had this Goucher experience, but because she was looking for her own next iteration, my partner entered a low-residency program in her field last year and is having her own re-awakening as a graphic artist. So I know I'm not alone in realizing the power of learning something when you are absolutely ready. At a workshop over the weekend, I looked around the room at the faces of many people close to my age and many others in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Our differences in age and life experiences only make the sessions richer and more absorbing.
And always when I'm here it is such a thing to see so many people take the brave step of trying something new, unfamiliar and downright scary. When I walked up to the dorms at my first residency, dragging my suitcase behind me, I could not have felt more out of my comfort zone. But by the next day I realized that being uncomfortable among similar souls is good for us. People reached out, listened to my story, and told me theirs. Now we follow each other’s journeys when we’re not here and we cheer for every essay or chapter written, every agent obtained and each book contract signed. Returning to school like this has provided me with what I would easily call the best education I’ve ever received. And, even better, it has introduced me to a world of people and ideas I couldn't have dreamed of when I was 18 and going to college the first time.