School has no expiration date

Goals are set and the finish line is within sight for older students who attend college.

Some are returning students here to complete the education they started years ago, while others are here to actualize new dreams.

At age 45, kinesiology major Christopher Ferguson is a first-time college student as a diesel mechanic.

He is focused on a second occupation and uses education to enhance his business.

“My fiancé and I own a companion care facility, so I’m going to incorporate physical therapy into that,” Ferguson said.

Older students attend school for a multitude of reasons, and while it’s a first-time experience for some, others are students who returned to school to finish what they started.

After high school, Patty Munoz, 37, experimented with college. She attended both California State University, Northridge and Pierce, but stopped going to school when life pulled her in other directions.

“I attended CSUN at age 18 for about a year, but I lived in L.A. and commuted by bus, and then I made friends and stopped going to school,” Munoz said. “I came to Pierce in 1999 and took a couple of classes, but I didn’t do so well.”

Munoz believes she wasn’t mature enough to handle going to college when she was younger.

“My life then was such a mess because I was too young and I wasn’t ready for college,” Munoz said.

The biggest difference counselor Sunday Salter sees between traditional, “college-aged” students and older students is not knowing what you want when you’re younger and having clear goals when you’re older.

“Traditional aged students are at a unique time in their lives when they’re trying to figure life out, and haven’t necessarily decided what they want to major in or what their goals are,” Salter said. “They change their minds very quickly.”

This is not unusual behavior for students who are transitioning from high school to a higher level of academia, according to Salter.

“It’s developmentally appropriate and it is where they should be in life,” she said. “It’s always been hard for a lot of our students to be successful, because developmentally some of them aren’t ready, and they often struggle.”

Munoz has returned to school to complete coursework as a child development major and believes her purpose is clear.

“My son was diagnosed with autism at 4 years old. When I learned about autism and how to help him, I met different people who inspired me and made me feel passionate enough to want to help other people,” Munoz said. “I feel like I can make a difference. I want to learn how to help my son and others.”

Salter believes that older students know what they want to do and also possess the motivation that leads to their success.

“Returning students know exactly why they’re here and they have goals,” Salter said. “They’re highly motivated to finish school because they have stuff going on in their lives and they don’t want to mess around.”

Life situations often dictate the paths that people choose, and for 30-year-old Cecilia Gomez, it was work that halted her educational strides. She attended school part-time, off and on for a few years, until she decided to focus on work.

“I attended college right after high school, but work got in the way,” Gomez said. “I decided to work full-time instead of going to school full-time.”

As she climbed the corporate ladder, Gomez realized she could only get so far without a college education.

“I was escalating at work and getting higher positions, but then I was stuck because I never completed college,” she said.  “I decided to come back and finish my bachelor’s degree.”

Adjunct instructor Jenny Serrano teaches political science to students enrolled in PACE. The program serves students who have to balance a job and school by offering evening and Saturday classes.

“I actually prefer teaching older students because they tend to have a direction and more motivation,” Serrano said. “They have more hanging in the balance with school, work and kids.”

Older students can better relate to material that’s taught in her political science class, which, according to Serrano, is due to life experiences.

“They tend to be really good political science students because either they see that they’ve been civically engaged, or they see that they really don’t know what it takes to be civically engaged, and then they become that much more tuned in to my class,” Serrano said. “A lot of young students are just getting started as adults, and don’t really understand the impact yet.”

Difficulties arise as a lack of  maturity from young students tests the patience of students like Gomez.

“Younger students can be distracting,” Gomez said. “Some students don’t take things seriously. They sit and talk through class and distract people who are really trying to learn.”

Adjusting to being a student after an extended absence from school can be overwhelming, but Ferguson sees the benefits of overcoming obstacles.

“Being out of the school element for so long is frustrating and rewarding at the same time,” Ferguson said. “Being older, you have an appreciation for school and know what to do.”

Students in their 30s and 40s take advantage of resources and do well in their coursework, according to Salter.

“Returning students tend to do really well. They get good grades, study really hard, and value their experience here at Pierce,” Salter said. “Older students take advantage of resources like the Center for Academic Success and different workshops.”

With age comes focus, and an unstoppable  determination. Failure is not an option for these students.

“I have a goal and my mind is set, so anything is possible,” Munoz said. “I’m not here to fail this time.”