Note: This is a revision of a piece I wrote six years ago when I started college. I have edited it and revised a little but the principles are the same.
STARTING COLLEGE AT AGE 70
22, Oct 2013
Revised 5, Sept. 2019
Early this past spring, while enjoying an evening of solitude, I got to thinking about what I should do with the rest of my life. I had considered going into senior housing or a retirement center, but the idea troubled me. I asked myself was I really that ready to give up and surrender to old age? I could say I had a mental and emotional war with my feelings, but that would be a lie. I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen, the idea of giving up my freedom now was simply too terrifying to contemplate. So what can I do with all the free time and minimal funds I have? Then I remembered the words of one of the sweetest people I know, Jina, a Korean girl who, along with her husband Bin, had rented a room from me while she was completing her Master’s Degree at Washington University here in St Louis. She said, “Papa, you go to college. I be so proud of you!”
College? I’m thinking about starting college at age seventy? Last time I was a full-time student was in 1959 when I punched my English teacher for hitting me. I left school, and he got suspended. Now, fifty-four years later I’m thinking about fulfilling my dream of going to college full time. I may be crazy but hey, why not try it? Just no coed dorms and shower rooms, I’m too modest, and I’d be too much competition for the young dudes. This could be fun!
Feeling as though I was setting out on a long trek, my first step had been deciding to pursue my dream. The next was to acquire the means to. Step one was pretty easy, step two was going to be difficult, if not impossible, or so I thought. Being retired and living on just my social security check doesn’t leave me anything extra for frills such as an education. The weak economy had wiped out what little money I had saved, and I’m not named an heir in anyone’s will. Then how does an old man with no money find the funds to go to college? If he’s smart, he looks for the same resources a young man does. In my case, it was the Financial Aid section of the St Louis Community College website where I learned about FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). FAFSA is a gateway to many different sources of educational funding for students of all ages, and it was step two for me.
Basically, there are two ways to apply for FAFSA funding. The first is meeting with a financial aid advisor at the college and the second going online to the FAFSA website to apply. They both have advantages and disadvantages – I chose the website as it was more relaxed and I could go at my own pace. It took me about thirty minutes to complete the application, and an hour later, I received an e-mail notification that I had been approved for funding and assigned a student identification number.
Did I mention I did this at about midnight on a Saturday night? You read that right, I had taken a significant step towards realizing a lifelong dream on a Saturday night. I had no idea what I wanted to study, nor did I care at that moment, I just wanted to call somebody and shout it out, I AM GOING TO COLLEGE! Not a good idea, most of my friends are in bed at ten, so I chose option two, a bourbon Manhattan and the late news.
I had to wait until June to take step three, the ACT Compass evaluation testing. (I’ll cheat a little here and do a copy-paste so the information is correct.)
“ACT Compass is an untimed, computerized test that helps your college evaluate your skills and place you into appropriate courses. ACT Compass offers tests in reading, writing, math, writing essay, and English as a Second Language (ESL). You will receive your ACT Compass test results immediately upon completion of testing, and your score report will include placement messages informing you what courses you should take and how to register.” “ACT Compass is not used like a traditional test. There is generally no “passing score.” Rather, ACT Compass scores indicate areas in which you are strong and areas in which you may need help. Thus, ACT Compass can identify problems in major subject areas before they disrupt your educational progress, giving you the opportunity to prepare more effectively for needed courses. You and your institution can use scores from ACT Compass tests to prepare a course of study that will be appropriate, relevant, and meaningful for you.”
June arrived with the late rains of April and the ACT Compass evaluation test. I was in a state of nervous excitement as I went to the Assessment office, where I signed in and got instructions on what to do. Then a lady ushered me into a computer lab (a room which has desks with computers on each) and assigned me a seat. I’m not a computer geek nor do I type well, so I was very thankful the test was not timed. It was interesting though: easy to read, thorough and not graded. Once I was comfortable with the keyboard I dug my heels in and did my best. It took a while to complete, but that didn’t bother me, I was having fun and actually learning something new. When I was done, I had to wait while the lady printed out the results for me. My high school math scores were midline, college math was almost non-existent but English comprehension, and composition were 94 and 97 respectively. That took me completely by surprise.
Step four was Student Orientation day! Then came butterflies in the belly. The first significant challenge for me in college was: what do I wear to go to school? I’ve worn uniforms or work clothes all my life. I probably have only one nice shirt and pair of pants. How could I go to school and impress everyone if I wasn’t dressed cool? Scary as it sounds, I decided to just be myself but cleaner. Arriving on time, I found the conference room without a problem and immediately decide I’m the oldest person within a hundred miles. I see bright, shiny young faces everywhere. I knew they were all staring and talking about me I remember it. Oh well, I’m a pretty impressive guy, so I joined the throng, listened to the somewhat dull introduction, received the handouts and waited in line to see a counselor. When my turn came, I was asked what courses I planned to take, and I said, huh? I hadn’t considered exactly what classes I wanted to take, I was just happy to be invited to learn. We talked about my ACT Compass scores and what they felt I should do, I said ok, let’s do it. Next thing I knew I was sitting at a computer signing up for American History, Philosophy, Honors English and Algebra. I was committed or should have been. I hadn’t been a full-time student since 1959, and I had signed up for twelve credit hours of college? I hear Jina’s beautiful voice, “I’m so proud of you Papa!” That did it, bring it on.
My next stop was for my student ID card and parking permit. This was an easy one. I just needed to prove I was me, have my picture taken and sign all sorts of papers. My official ID card was mailed to my home in about three weeks. Final stop of the day was Financial Aid. I had come prepared with copies of my online applications and related confirmations. As I handed the paperwork to a pretty young lady at the front desk, she looked at me as though I were insane. “Your paperwork is all in perfect order! I just need you to sign two forms, and you’re done. Welcome to Meramec.” Guess I got that part right.
Walking out of the office, I felt a little overcome. After so many years my dream was close to becoming reality yet something seemed to be missing. I meandered around campus for a while orientating my mind and spirit to the alien environment. I didn’t know what to expect or how I would actually feel once I started classes, I just had to know what it felt like to walk on campus. Everything was so different and yet warm and inviting. I decided to just sit under a tree to watch people and listen to the wisdom of nature. As I sat there thinking, I noticed something to my right that seemed out of place. There, under a small bush, lay a weather-worn paperback book with torn cover. I picked it up to see if it had an owner’s name in it – nothing. A student needs books to help learn (insert light bulb here)! I am now a student, I need books so that I can learn!
Step five was the college bookstore, but I didn’t have the money to buy the books I needed, or so I thought. Since it didn’t cost anything to browse the shelves for the books I would need, that’s what I did. I could always come back when I had the money. As I was browsing a clerk offered her assistance. I told her I was a new student getting orientated and was looking for the books I needed for my classes. I showed her my class schedule, and she picked out those available. When I told her I didn’t have the money to pay for them yet, she asked me if I was getting financial aid. I said yes, and she asked to see my student ID card, which I didn’t have yet. Then she asked if I had a student ID number and that I had. She entered my student number in the bookstore computer system, and much to my amazement told me I was approved for a bookstore account which meant I could get books on credit until my financial aid funds were released at the end of the fifth week of class. All I needed was my official ID card, and that wouldn’t arrive for three weeks. I was both excited and a little disappointed. I wanted a textbook. I did have enough cash on me to purchase one of the required novels. So I did just that. Head high, shoulders back and proud as a peacock I strutted out of the bookstore holding my very own requisite college book. I was finally an official student.
Finally, step six was first day of class, and I was about as nervous as the Grand Dragon of the KKK at a Martin Luther King rally: I think I would fare better though. Walking into class, I got those stares, you know, the ones that said “what’s he doing here. Is he someone’s grandpa? Maybe he’s the janitor.” Nope, sorry kiddies, I’m a student too. In class, we did self-introductions just like back in the 1950s Each student said his/her name and maybe a little about themselves. My turn comes, and what do I say? Come on Papa, do the obvious, tell them what they’re wanting to know. “I’m Dick. I’m seventy years old, and I’m realizing a lifelong dream of going to college.” Reactions ranged from applause to stunned silence and a few, “No way man, you ain’t that old.” My favorite was the “Awesome dude!” Regardless what was said, the tone I felt was one of acceptance and warm greetings and it was genuinely Awesome Dude!
Step seven, at long last, I was in college and ready to learn. Unfortunately, I was learning things about myself that threatened to compromise my education. First is hearing, I am gradually going deaf. My hearing was damaged years ago when I worked as a paramedic/emergency vehicle driver. The driver’s cab of emergency vehicles was not insulated sufficiently to mute the sound of the sirens mounted on the roof, directly over our heads. No one thought of taking precautions to protect our hearing. I developed Meniere’s disorder, a fluid imbalance in the brain which presents as tinnitus, vertigo, and progressive hearing loss. Just when I have the chance to realize my dream it may not come because I couldn’t hear and couldn’t afford hearing aids. To my good fortune, the college has helpful people, and I was steered to the Access office where they do more than their best to help disabled students. The Access staff outlined what I had to do to get help. I needed doctor’s letter stating I have an impairment and current Audiograph test results to verify the primary diagnosis. Once everything was done and approved, they provided me with an electronic amplifier to use in classes and letters to each professor instructing them to work with me. Things were going good until another issue arose. I cannot do algebra. I carefully listen to the lectures, take copious notes, do as much of the homework as I can but cannot retain the formulas long enough to pass the quizzes and exams. Back to the Access office and this time it wasn’t so easy.
Short term memory loss is pretty common to all ages but increases as you grow older, what I’m experiencing isn’t the same. With short term loss we usually remember within a short time, not now, this time it’s a total block. As my doctor told me, “You may be experiencing a cognitive impairment. We need to set up an appointment with a Neuropsychologist for a complete evaluation.” Earliest I can get is 12/10/13, just before end of semester. The Access office can only give me limited assistance until a final diagnosis is made, I’m screwed in algebra. My hopes and dreams of becoming a space explorer are gone. But I refuse to give up trying.
Am I going to stop at step seven? No, each new challenge is a chance to learn something new. I came to school to learn. I am learning at school. I will remain in school to learn for as long as the Spirits allow me to. I’m a fighter! Today, if I were asked the most important thing I’ve learned in the process of starting college at my age, I would have to say – know yourself and do not be afraid to voice your limitations. If you are considering enrolling in college, please take the time to meet with the counselors in the Access Department well in advance of the start of classes to discuss your challenges and the support available to you.