For some, education begins at 40 — or even later

James Ruff, a creative writing major, must balance work and studying.

Photo by Irene Fertik

He was an ambitious account executive, overseeing challenging projects, managing several workers and earning a lucrative salary.

Despite his success in the business world, Ron Sparling, 46, felt something was missing.

“There was a definite void,” Sparling said. “It always seemed like I was swimming against the tide because I didn’t have my bachelor’s degree or my MBA.”

Several years ago, after being diagnosed with HIV, Sparling set a goal for himself: get into USC by 2000. He attended Long Beach City College before USC accepted him this past fall, awarding him a Dean’s Transfer Scholarship.

“Instead of just waiting to die, my doctor urged me to get on with my life and do something productive,” Sparling said. “I knew I wanted to do something meaningful. Going back to school became my top priority.”

Sparling is one of more than 100 undergraduate students ranging from 28 to 65 years old who entered USC this fall. Like Sparling, most are transfer students from junior colleges. Many have given up their jobs and dipped into their savings to be a full-time student at USC.

They represent a small but important faction of students, said Joseph P. Allen, vice provost and dean of admission and financial aid.

“They are particularly motivated,” Allen said. “To come back to college at this time in their lives takes a lot of commitment. I think their younger peers can learn a lot from their experiences.”

Brenda Robison, 43, enrolled at USC this past fall after working for more than two decades at an engineering firm, most recently in an upper management position. To further advance, Robison needed a master’s degree in business – which meant she first needed to earn her bachelor’s degree.

“It was a major commitment to head back to school,” Robison said. “But I’m realizing how much of a luxury school is. It’s something that you can only understand if you’ve been without it for some time.”

Robison said that being without a degree – and acquiring the knowledge that comes with it – had left a hole in her life. After all, never before did she have the opportunity to study Shakespeare or discuss Greek mythology or learn French.

“I didn’t have that solid of an academic base,” said Robison, a business major, who has taken a leave of absence from the engineering company she worked for. “In business, I had to work twice as hard as my colleagues with degrees. Writing well was especially difficult.”

After making the decision to pursue their degrees, the next challenge for older undergraduatess is making the transition from career to full-time student.

“Getting into the college routine was torturous at first,” said James Ruff, 31, who came to USC this fall after years of working as an electrician. “Time management skills had to be figured out.”

Sitting down for final exams brought back memories of high school, said Sparling, who is majoring in English. “I was terrified,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I had been in business and tackled a lot of other challenges.”

Robison said she doesn’t process information as easily as when she was a young adult.

“The things I haven’t done for years, like calculus and algebraic equations, are very difficult. I don’t think as quickly and I don’t think that’s going to change. It’s a sign of age.”

Ruff, who is majoring in creative writing, agrees, adding: “When you’re young, you’re more of a sponge.”

Taking courses with students sometimes young enough to be their own children was another adjustment. “I say in jest that I hope these kids don’t mind having Dad in class,” Sparling said. “At first it seems odd to be as old or older than the professor and certainly older than the students.”

“I especially welcome mature students as a valuable presence in my classes because of the insights and greater life experience they bring to discussions,” said Charles E. McKenna, professor of chemistry in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “No doubt they, themselves, are energized by interacting with young, enthusiastic lively and idealistic 18- and 19-year old fellow students.”

Sparling said he learned in city college that professors are the ones in charge. “I hope I made all of my major mistakes at the community college,” he said. “I was very confrontational at first. I realize now that I have to check my ego at the door. My goal is to just be a student and enjoy the process of learning.”

Ruff has had an easier time blending in with classmates, but isn’t counting on a typical college experience. “Because I’m older, I’m not going to frat parties or socializing. I’m strictly here for school and that’s about it.”

Ruff, a native of Georgia came to USC after running his own electrician business. Initially, it was not Ruff’s idea to return to college, but a condition set by his future father-in-law. “He said that if I wanted to marry his daughter, I had to earn my degree.”

The day before starting classes, Ruff and his girlfriend broke up. “I still had the desire to accomplish this. I’m doing it for me – no one else. I have a real thirst for knowledge. The more courses I take the more I realize how much there’s to learn.”