Last night, Kris and I had dinner with Craig and Lisa. Craig is an architect. Lisa is a technical writer who has spent the past few years as a stay-at-home mother. (Lisa contributed two GRS guest posts last year: How to find great deals on eBay and Career advice for the college graduate.)

Now that their children are a little older, Lisa has the itch to return to the workplace, to find some non-motherly pursuit to fulfill her. (She’s a great mom, by the way, but she does have other aspirations.) She’s now in her second term at a local university, studying to obtain a degree in graphic arts. She’s taking just one evening class per term, but she loves it. This is something she’s wanted to do for a long time, and she’s juggled her life to make it happen.

After Lisa finished telling us about her classes — art history and Photoshop — I mentioned that I’d been thinking about going back to school, too. “One thing about making my living as a writer,” I said, “is that it allows me freedom of hours. I can work when I want. I’m not sure I’m ready to take on another responsibility, but if I wanted to, I feel like I could pursue any degree I wanted: finance, computers, history.”

We talked about how different it is to go back to school as an adult. The four of us all attended the same small college (Willamette University) during the late eighties and early nineties, and we’ve each had some post-college education. Craig went to architecture school. Kris obtained a masters in teaching, and then took some additional science courses. A decade ago, I spent about a year studying computer programming. And now Lisa is pursuing art. College is much different as an adult than it is just after high school.

“I remember having non-trads in class and thinking they were strange,” Lisa said. “They seemed like they were from another world.”

“Yeah,” said Kris. “I always felt like they were out of touch, like they didn’t have any reference point for my life.”

“Right,” said Lisa. “But now I look at the students in my class and I realize it’s they who don’t have a reference point for my life. Now I realize that the non-traditional students did know what it was like to be young, but it’s impossible to know what it’s like to be older until you’ve lived it. I’m sure I just seem like a housewife to a lot of my classmates — they don’t understand everything that’s led to where I am now.”

“I never understood why non-trads actually went to college,” I said. “I looked down on them. But I was an idiot. Now when I see somebody our age going back to school, I think it’s awesome. I realize how difficult it is to do that, the sacrifices a person has to make for career, for family, for leisure. If you decide to go back to school as an adult, it’s a huge commitment.”

“I always wonder how they can afford it,” Craig said, and we laughed. It’s true that the financial commitment can be daunting. When you’ve been in the workplace for ten or twenty years, you have a greater appreciation for what it means to spend $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 on an education.

I’ve thought a lot about our conversation this morning. I realize that what I admire so much about non-traditional students is that they set goals and they pursue them. When most young adults go to college, they don’t have a clear conception of what they’re doing, what the alternatives are, and what sort of career they’d like to pursue. But when a 37-year-old mother goes back to school, she has an aim in mind. She has a purpose. Her goals keep her focused.

It’s this focus that I admire in Lisa’s return to college. Lisa’s situation reminds me of Donna Freedman, one of my editors at MSN’s Smart Spending blog. Donna is making a similar transition. She’s surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year while returning to school as a “mature student”. She writes:

How am I doing? Better than I ever have, thanks, despite grammar nightmares caused by the Spanish subjunctive in adverbial clauses of interdependence. I never knew life could be this busy, this overscheduled — or this rewarding.

[...] I already have everything I need and some of what I want. Some people call that “voluntary simplicity.” I think of it as living mindfully, i.e. deciding what’s really important and working toward it. For me that means finishing the degree, saving for a home and helping the people I love.

In other words, Donna has focus. She has goals, and these goals keep her happy.

I love to watch people pursue self-improvement, which is exactly what Lisa and Donna are doing. Perhaps it’s because I spent so long — fifteen years! — without goals of my own, but now when I see other people striving toward a destination, I cannot help but cheer them on.

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