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You can learn so much from living 40 years. I’ve learned that the choices I made in my 20s and 30s can change the course of life in a way that we simply can’t imagine until we turn 40.
The choice that I made in my 20s to not attend college straight after high school — and travel and work instead — was one that I regretted in my mid-20s and well into my 30s. I ended up with a job but not a career, and that was something that never sat well with me. I’m happy to say that I finally finished my BA in psychology from Mills College in Oakland, California, in December 2019, just shy of my 40th birthday. Here’s how I did it.
One night in 2017, over dinner, I turned my family’s home life upside down. After buying a home in the Bay Area, and having two kids in three years, I looked at my husband square in the eyes and said, “I want to finish my college degree, and I want to do it at a private college.”
Marriage is complicated. Everything I could have hoped for when I met my husband had come to fruition within the five years that we met and married. However, at the point of this conversation, I had been a stay-at-home-mom for more than four years. The more research I did about returning to the workforce post-babies, the more I found dead-stops at higher education requirements. It was heartbreaking to think that I’d have to give up on my career ambitions. I know that I could have gotten a job based on my previous work experience as a Traffic Manager in radio broadcasting, but I wanted a career as a professional writer, and I had no idea how to pivot.
You might be wondering, Why did you get a psychology degree if you wanted to be a writer? Or you might be thinking, Why a private college — aren’t they expensive? In short, I’ve always written. What I needed was help with content development and critical thinking, and a psychology degree helped me hone those skills. I also knew that a private college was important because of the one-on-one connection to networks and institutions that aren’t readily available for older adults at big universities. These are big assumptions that I made and that I essentially gambled on.
So far, that gamble is paying off. I am now blogging for a lifestyle brand and am developing my career as a professional writer and am working on the second draft of my first fiction novel.
Justifying the costs of college
Attending a private college is a big investment. And I couldn’t bear the thought of asking my husband to shell out not only student loan costs but also childcare costs for two toddlers while I went to campus or studied for tests. How could I? How does anyone ask that of a husband who is a sole provider? How do you make such a selfish choice?
In short, I decided it wasn’t selfish at all. I decided that my career ambitions would ultimately benefit our family as a whole. This wasn’t easy, but it was certainly worthwhile.
If you take anything anyway from this essay, I hope it’s this:
I had to make a conscious choice that I really wanted the things I was about to propose. I faced my Type-A husband with a financial plan that I was committed to. The plan included paying back my own loan with my future earnings as well as building a career that would allow for me to work from home at least on a part-time basis.
When I say it was a hard conversation to have, I’m not exaggerating. He didn’t jump for joy. He didn’t congratulate me for my enthusiasm or determination. Instead, he asked me what our day-to-day routine would look like once I started school. He asked me how I would feel about a stranger watching our kids. We talked about it throughout that first weekend and well until the deadline of the first tuition payment to Mills College. And with each conversation, I could have said, “You’re right, it will be too hard. We really can’t afford to go into debt. We can put it off until the kids are in kindergarten.” But I never did. I kept speaking my truth: “I know this is hard, but I need to do this. I will do everything in my power to make this family decision beneficial for all of us.” And finally, “Please trust me.”
Like I said, marriage is complicated. My husband tested my resolve at every step, but I persevered. Finally, in 2018, I was at my first private college campus enrolled as a student. That’s when life got even harder.
Here are the five biggest takeaways I learned from returning to college in my 40s.
You have to own your age and your mom jeans. Walk as if you know more than all the younger students — chances are, you do.
You have to own your age and your mom jeans. Walk as if you know more than all of the younger students — chances are, you do.
Logistically, the first thing I did was scan the room for folks who looked my age. There was always one, and when there wasn’t, I sat right up front. I figured entering and exiting would be easier if I made a beeline to the front of the room. As the first semester carried on, I actually made friends — with 20-year-olds (!), and eventually I began to sit among them throughout the room. The first day is always hard, but it gets easier.
Try checking the age biases you’ve held against younger people. Chances are, they’re not judging you as much as you’re judging them.
The thing about professors who are much younger than you is that they made completely different choices than you did. That’s it. Don’t let them intimidate you. They don’t know what it’s like to live two or more decades of adulthood. Isn’t it nice that you do? Isn’t that refreshing? It was for me.
They don’t know what it’s like to live two or more decades of adulthood. Isn’t it nice that you do? Isn’t that refreshing? It was for me.
Logistically, when I was late on an assignment or not quite prepared for a presentation, professors were understanding. Generally, they appreciate people who go to office hours and students who make an effort to befriend them. Even teachers who do blind-grading appreciate those of us who manage households, raise kids, work part-time or full-time jobs.
Let’s talk about my husband just one more time. He’s in sales, and what they say about sales is true. Feast or famine, you eat what you catch. Needless to say when the sole provider lives a commission-based life, their income (business travel, golf, dinners, etc.) takes priority over the essay you have to write before Monday. Sometimes the only time I had to finish writing assignments was when my kids were sleeping. I was left with early wake-ups and late nights for studying, reading, and emailing professors.
Here’s the thing about returning to school in your 40s that no one talks about: Your friends aren’t in school with you. There will be times when you’ll have to say no to grown-people events because you have homework to do. You’ll have to wake up at 5 a.m. to get reading done, which means that late-night movies and sipping wine on the porch with your partner come to a dead stop. Sorry.
Prioritization was actually my favorite part of returning to school. It was something that I had already been doing since my kids were born. Meals, diapers, fevers, Sharpie stains, and toy pick-up games become priority as a stay-at-home-mom.
As a parent, you develop routines that get you through the day — take the same approach to college.
What essay holds the most weight toward your overall class grade? Which teacher is more lenient if you have to ask for more time? Which paper will require less research and can be knocked out the quickest?
I’m not a Type-A person, but I do envy those whose planning skills come naturally. However, don’t let not being a natural planner discourage you. Planning skills can be learned with practice, patience, and grace.
There are few things that I reference more in my life than having lived in Europe for a year in my 20s and traveling every chance I got thereafter. Which is to say that that experience was formative. Meeting and marrying my husband in my early 30s was also formative. So was losing a pregnancy between two healthy babies, and managing gestational diabetes throughout.
Do I regret not going to school in my 20s? No. Returning to school later in life has taught me to be my own advocate — in my marriage, in the classroom, with younger peers, and when I look in the mirror.
Returning to school later in life has taught me to be my own advocate — in my marriage, in the classroom, with younger peers, and when I look in the mirror.
I don’t know your grief, nor your joy, but I know this: If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely lived two decades of adult life and have survived. You must have so many great stories, so many big wins, and even tragic losses. Who doesn’t hold their head up with all of those things considered?
I’ll leave you with one last thought: If you own your own story strongly enough, no one else will question it. So convince yourself first, and the rest will follow.
Olga Rosales Salinas, along with her five sisters, is a founding member of the Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship. The scholarship helps first-generation or immigrant students from Aptos High School in Aptos, California. She also writes poetry, short stories, and is currently working on her first fiction novel. Her heart center is with her family that includes two rambunctious boys. In fall 2019, she received an honorary mention for the Charles Bukowski Poetry Prize from the Raw Art Review. Currently she facilitates a poetry writing workshop for 5th and 6th graders at Harbor House, a non-profit in Oakland, California. Between 2009–2011 she was the founding curator for Vettedword, a monthly showcase featuring poets, writers, and musicians.
Olga Rosales Salinas
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