Graduation is seven months away. For a 22-year-old undergrad whose post-baccalaureate plans are nebulous, this might seem like forever. Not for me. In January 2000, at the age of 42, I returned to college after a long academic hibernation. I've been a part-time college student ever since, creeping up on a long-delayed graduation.
There is no single, overriding reason why I returned to college after so long away, but I felt trapped between a spouse wrapping up work on her M.A. in journalism and a son in high school who demanded to know why his college dropout father was pushing him into higher education. Unless I returned to college immediately, I would soon be the least-educated person in the house. Baylor's then-generous tuition remission program for employee family members -- my wife is managing editor of an academic journal -- eased my concerns about the financial burden of returning to school and ensured that Baylor was the only university to which I applied.
Since returning, I have been challenged in unexpected ways. Baylor does little to accommodate nontraditional undergraduate students, offering no weekend classes and few evening classes. Some offices close during the lunch hour, and entire buildings are sealed tighter than Tupperware promptly at 5:00.
Initially, I held a traditional full-time job, and I often flew across town with minimal regard for traffic signals, hoping to beat the English department's noon lock-down. Each time I arrived to find the office door handle still warm from the hand of the person who locked it, I taught new and imaginative curse words to Baylor's abundant squirrel population.
Back then, registration and payment of tuition and fees required a day off work, a beach ball-sized bladder, and the endurance of a sequoia as lines moved slower than frozen molasses. While Baylor's adoption of electronic solutions reduced my frustration by allowing me to register and pay fees online, the university's constant upgrading of hardware and software soon outpaced my personal budget. Now I must travel to campus just to find a computer powerful enough to complete these tasks.
Even though I successfully overcame real and imagined obstacles, I had no specific plan when I returned to school. At first, I enrolled in one course each semester. I soon realized that I would qualify for AARP membership while I was still receiving student discounts, so I began doubling and tripling my class load.
When presented with the opportunity to move from conventional employment to self-employment, I embraced it. Rather than forcing my class schedule fit my work schedule, I could adjust my workload to fit my class schedule. This becomes increasingly important as I approach the end of undergraduate life, when only single sections of required courses may be offered each semester.
Hardest to adjust to was the realization that I am no longer young. Desks are too small for someone who gained his "freshman 15" and then spent nearly 30 years developing middle-aged spread, and what's left of my hair is now more salt than pepper.
Despite raising one of my own, members of the wired generation confound me. While my family didn't own a television until I reached third grade, my classmates came out of the womb clutching a computer mouse and a cell phone. A once-peaceful walk across campus is now interrupted at every step by the nonstop chatter of the connected, and the beep, chirp and moan of student cell phones regularly disturb classes.
When I was born, there were only 49 states, and I soon learned that most important events in the constitutional history of the United States have happened during my lifetime. This means that my fellow students study history, while I study current events.
In many classes, I've been the oldest person in the room, leading to an awkward sorting out of social convention. Will the instructor treat me with the respect due my age, or with the disdain appropriate for an undergrad?
At the beginning of each semester, professors often question students' about their future plans, and my classmates mention doctor, lawyer and engineer. Me? I want to be a Social Security recipient because there isn't enough time between graduation and retirement to actually have a career.
When I tell my wife about some of my class discussions -- discussions where life experience clearly colors my opinions -- she says, "Don't frighten the children." And it's difficult not to think of my classmates as children, even though many of them are in early adulthood, because my 21-year-old son is among them, and I often find myself enrolled in courses with members of his high school graduating class.
In a university where students of my generation can probably be counted in single digits, there's little opportunity to develop friendships. Even sincere attempts make me feel like the creepy neighbor my mother always warned me about.
But I have tried to experience college life the way a traditional undergrad might.
- I've eaten cafeteria food, quickly realizing that the cast-iron stomach I had as a teenager is now one of the seven largest methane producers in Texas, and I must monitor my diet.
- My wardrobe slowly devolved, and T-shirts emblazoned with one of Baylor's many logos are now my apparel of choice.
- I joined three academic fraternities, but soon decided that my days as a chaperone ended with my son's high school graduation party.
- Although I've yet to pull an all-nighter, I've certainly had my share of late-nighters, not opening my textbooks until my family finally retires for the night.
- Along with other Baylor students, I've sat in the stands through losing season after losing season of football, and sat glued to the television as our women's basketball team advanced through the NCAA tournament to take the title.
While my son speeds through college without stopping for marriage, children and career, I relish the few advantages of being a college student at my age. I especially enjoy the reaction at the local multiplex when I request the "student discount," and my wife takes great pleasure in telling people that she sleeps with a college student.
I'll be 48 when I finally receive my B.A. in professional writing, having spent six years finishing half of my undergraduate requirements. At this glacial pace, dare I even consider grad school?
Michael Bracken is a 47-year-old senior at Baylor University. His latest book is Yesterday in Blood and Bone, a collection of short stories published by Wildside Press.