Kimberly Welborn, 61, is a costume designer and owns a health consultant practice. She is currently working towards a BA in liberal studies. Photo credit: Kimberly Welborn
Lisa Sheridan used to be a little ashamed about not having a bachelor’s degree as an adult. “It was kind of like a skeleton in my closet,” she said. “If it came up at parties, I wouldn’t talk about the fact that I hadn’t gone to college. I would quickly change the subject.” Sheridan had always wanted to get her degree, but found it difficult to balance working full time in the fashion industry while attending classes at night. Only later in life, after discovering her passion for writing, did she think about going back to school: “I started thinking about writing as an exit plan,” she said, “I knew I would have to have a degree if I wanted to be a writer and be taken seriously.”
With online learning, earning her degree became easier. Sheridan, founder of The Kiosk, graduated last May from CUNY SPS with a degree in communication and media. She turned 60 last month. Sheridan is not alone. According to CUNY SPS, 25% of all undergraduate students enrolled in the school last year were over the age of 40, with more than 100 of them being over the age of 50. “Our oldest graduate earned an MA in Labor Studies at the age of 82 years, 8 months and 21 days,” said Jennifer G. Lee, Associate Dean of Enrollment Management and Student Services at the school.
Many students at CUNY SPS have different reasons for going back to school later in life.
George Athanassiou, 53, wanted to shift out of the financial services industry which he worked in for 25 years. He started looking ahead to his retirement years, and decided he wanted to start teaching at the university level: “I came back to CUNY SPS to kind of get the educational credentials I’m going to need in order to pursue that career change.” Athanassiou completed his bachelor’s degree, and is currently pursuing his master’s in business management and leadership at the school.
Other students realized they needed a degree to advance their careers. Yesblet Fernandez, worked as the vice president of HSBC Bank for many years, but realized that the lack of a bachelor’s degree was keeping her from getting promoted to higher positions. “If they’re looking at two candidates with similar work experience and one has the bachelor’s, they will go for the bachelor’s degree,” she said. Fernandez has since left her position at the bank and is focusing on finishing her bachelor’s in communication and media. She hopes to graduate this December at the age of 41.
There are perks to being an older student. Kimberly Welborn, 61, is working on her bachelor’s in liberal studies at CUNY SPS. She says older students are highly focused: “Older students typically have a clear purpose for being in school – a promotion, pay raise, or career change or advancement, so we are often more highly motivated, especially to get through the process quickly.” Welborn worked as a costume designer for many years, while owning a natural health consulting practice and homeschooling four children. She expects to go on to earn a master’s degree and then teach at the university level. Welborn also hopes a master’s degree will help her start a fair-trade coalition of women’s sewing cooperatives in the future.
Despite the advantages, older students sacrifice a lot to go back to school. Adrienne Malone, 48, is doing her master’s in business while raising a family and working full time “I stay up late nights. I wake up early mornings still to go to work,” she said. Being a full time employee and a full time student, Malone used the weekends to catch up on her schoolwork. “It does sometimes hinder your family life balance,” she said, “when I registered for grad school, my children cried.” Malone, who works as a career advisor and trainer, hopes to have her own human relations firm after she graduates.
She offers words of advice for others in her shoes: “Don’t give up. There is no expiration date on education.” The sentiment is echoed by many other older students who feel at home at CUNY SPS. Perhaps Sheridan, founder of The Kiosk puts it best: “Go for it. Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams…four years goes so fast.”