As I sat in an English 101 class during my first semester of college, I glanced around the room and noticed that I was several years older than most of my 18-year-old classmates. I felt awkward and out of place. My path to higher education was non-traditional, as college wasn’t an option for me when I was in my late teens and early 20s. At the time, I was very sick and homebound, the result of a serious case of Lyme disease that I had contracted at age 14. When my health improved enough that college finally was possible for me by my early 30s, I jumped at the chance and enrolled.
I was excited, but soon found that there were details I hadn’t considered. There were forms to fill out for financial aid, to prove residency, and to confirm that I had received childhood vaccinations. Additionally, there were placement exams to take to gauge my academic level and finally, decisions to be made about which courses to sign up for. It felt like there was endless red tape to navigate.
Regardless of any minor obstacles or inconveniences, I was determined to do whatever it took to ensure that I could pursue my education. I witnessed other students leave defeated by some of the hurdles they faced and vowed not to be like them — though I certainly could empathize with their frustrations. I was always goal-oriented and studious, so being able to attend school again felt both new and like a homecoming. My illness taught me to be adaptable, tenacious and resilient — lessons that I found I could apply to all areas of my life. It proved to be particularly useful when I returned to school.
As I got into the swing of things as an adult student, it was obvious that I had to become fiercely protective of my time. Living on my own, I still had all of the responsibilities of an adult running her own household — bills to be paid, chores to be done, food to be bought and prepared. I looked for ways to maximize my time.
While I commuted by subway to and from school, I read from my textbooks. If audiobooks were an option for English class, I listened to them through headphones while walking down the sidewalk. While my laundry was in the washer and dryer at the laundromat, I poured over the notes I had taken in class. I learned to make the most of any spare moments. Free time felt like a luxury I often didn’t have, but by getting my school work and other life tasks completed, I was able to carve out more time to rest or do things just for pleasure, like reading a book or watching a movie.
And, I learned to make very intentional decisions. When a friend texted me asking if I wanted to go out one evening, I hesitated for only a moment before texting back to say that I had to decline to focus on studying. In doing so, I discovered something that surprised me — a deep sense of peace about prioritizing a longer-term goal over a short-term one. I knew that there was a bigger picture at stake — my education was important for my future and honoring my decision to become the best student I could be would pay off. I couldn’t have known how rewarding that choice would turn out to be time and time again.
There were times when I secretly questioned if the struggle was worth it. I worked part-time throughout college, and there were many days when I would collapse into bed exhausted, knowing that I had to get up and do it all again the next day. I lived for days off and breaks. But, even then, there were tasks to catch up on.
As mentally, physically, and financially challenging as it was to juggle all aspects of my life as an adult student, I am happy and grateful that I chose to pursue my education and that I was able to find ways to make it work. It reshaped the way that I view not only the world, but also myself — so much so that I didn’t want it to end. After college, I didn’t hesitate when graduate school became an option.
Now, after having completed my master’s degree and all of my formal schooling, I realize that the journey of learning is lifelong. I’ve always been an avid reader and enjoy expanding my knowledge about all topics, but especially art history and science. Now that I don’t have a specific course of study to pursue for a degree and all of the pressures that go along with it, I am savoring the opportunity to learn for the sheer pleasure of it.
Originally published on September 1, 2020.