To hell with tradition

    When I returned to school for the first time in eight years last spring as a transfer student of junior standing, it was with some trepidation. After all, having turned 30 last March, I am officially no longer young. My days of slumming it in campus housing, fueling my body with Ramen noodles and Kool-Aid and sleeping through class whenever I feel like it, are over. So I welcomed with open arms the news that the average student age at Portland State is 28. Obviously, “non-traditional” is a polite euphemism for “old.” So it was nice transferring in as a 30-year-old junior to a school where I was more or less the average, rather than a geriatric anomaly.

    In fact, my return to school – in the final quarter of the academic calendar, no less – has been so smooth I would recommend that every new college student seriously consider pacing his or her progress through the tiers of academia. Many people speed through their four years of college as if they’re running a marathon with their degree as the finish line, and I can’t help thinking that they’re cheating themselves. For me, at age 30, collecting credits as fast as possible isn’t so much the goal. I’m enjoying my classes now, getting more out of them and contributing more to them, than I ever did as a careless and carefree freshman.

    The last time I set foot on a college campus was in 1998 in a galaxy far away filled with creatures as strange as the denizens of the Mos Eisley space station in Star Wars: Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Conservative crybabies like The Spectator often bemoan the leftiness of Portland State – liberals don’t have a monopoly on whining, you see – but compared to my last alma mater, where you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an anarcho-syndicalist or an intersex feminist activist, PSU is decidedly conservative. They say you get conservative as you age, but that hasn’t happened to me – not in political terms at least. So I had that to contend with being back in the real world, more or less, after two years in one of the ultimate liberal-radical utopias. I still haven’t worked out how to convert my alien Evergreen credits – which take the form of written evaluations – into Portland State. The good people in the art department look at them as though they’re written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the matter of grades, too, PSU is staunchly traditional.

    Anyway, I was a little nervous when I first took a seat in class last spring. It was a women’s studies class, History of Sexualities, which I’d taken as part of the sexualities cluster. On the first day it was nice to find that, not only was I not the only male in a women’s studies class, but there was an openly 50-year-old woman in our group. She was more than twice as old as many four-year graduates and just finishing her first degree. In fact, generally speaking, it was a multi-generational class, which brought an extra dimension of quality to our discussions: the meshing of different age perspectives. It was very encouraging, and as I eased into the class I noticed that something was different. After ruling out the externals I realized the X-factor was me. I was older, and with age had come increased confidence. I found myself raising my hand more and more often, until I was one of the leading contributors to our in-class discussions. Many of the other, younger students struck me as timid; a good number of them never raised their hand unless called on by our professor. I don’t remember taking assignments seriously or even doing much homework when I was 18, in my freshman year at the University of Minnesota. But at PSU I’ve been very conscientious about doing my readings, writing my essays, really caring about my grades probably for the first time, since I had always taken a lackadaisical approach in college classes before, and back in high school – fuck, I don’t even remember high school.

    At the risk of sounding ageist – or reverse-ageist, perhaps – I find myself gravitating towards the older students in my classes. They tend to be less self-conscious, more self-assured, and also friendlier. They display the openness and approachability evinced by people who are socially secure, who have nothing to prove. By the same token, I don’t feel the sharp divide between me and my professors the way I did a decade ago; instead of a child/adult dynamic, I feel myself more on equal footing with my instructors. And this makes me like them more. I’ve thought highly of every professor I’ve had so far at PSU over the course of this past spring and summer. With age comes increased respect for the work they do, taking on the difficult task of sculpting young brains, newly emerged from the hormonal coma of puberty, into mature adult minds.

    Of course, a couple arguments could be made againstpostponing your degree indefinitely. One is cost. With loan interest rates rising and our lovely president talkingabout increasing financial aid while in fact he slashesit by billions, and no knowing when our current conservative regression will end, it’s legitimate to question the wisdom of pushing back your day of academic reckoning. Obviously it hasn’t escaped the notice of the neocons that “liberal education” tends not to work in their favor: instead of producing mindless drones and political zombies, higher education often turns out people who can think for themselves and actually examine whether the actions of their elected officials match up with their lip service. Financial aid is just one of several major public services suffering under the current regime.

    Also, there certainly are people for whom going straight from high school to college and powering through it in four fast years isthe right choice. If you have a career in mind and a clear idea of what you want to major in from day one, definitely don’t fuck around. For such people, the destination is in fact what matters more so than the journey. I was the other kind of student: the kind who still hadn’t settled on a major even as I approached my third year of college, and who said things like “I want to be a writer when I grow up” right into my late twenties. For people like me, I highly recommend waiting until you’re surer of what you want. Disregard the well-meaning but misguided admonitions of family who think there’s something wrong with you if you fall out of synch with the mainstream, and do things at your own pace. Taking an eight-year hiatus from school was the wisest decision I’ve made in my academic career. If I ever win the lottery – which is extremely unlikely, since I’ve never in my life bought a lottery ticket – I could see myself being a professional student. Homework assignments are thrilling challenges for me now, and I look forward to going to class, even on those blue Monday mornings. It beats sitting in an office cubicle in the suburbs, typing binary code until your eyes blur.

    Why rush it, kids? Your years in college are as good as it gets.