Older students face steep college learning curve

by Mike Heral

I was wrong. I don’t admit this often. This college semester—my first in a traditional campus since (gulp) 1989—nears its end and I’m forced to admit it was more difficult than I expected. I figured it was going to be easy. After all, I began the year after a successful naval career. Plus, this wasn’t my first collegiate rodeo. I transferred in with 74 credit hours so really, what could San Diego State throw at me?

I submitted my retirement request in August last year. I initially planned on doing what many naval retirees do and trade my service khakis for Dockers khakis. It was the safe play because I wouldn’t be losing much income. Only, I don’t like doing the safe thing. I have too much prima donna in me, so I decided retirement provided an opportunity for something riskier. It didn’t take long to realize I wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree. And this is where I went wrong.

I figured going back to school would be a two-year vacation. The bulk of my 74 credits came from an online school—not a “diploma mill” but a bona fide extension of a college founded in 1851. I quickly found the rigors of my online classes to be as hard as recess. The typical week involved reading one or two textbook chapters, completing a discussion board question and responding to two others’ responses. Instructor participation varied, but most merely provided a discussion question and counted the number of responses. Some, but not all, were quick to correct when I would call them professor. They considered themselves facilitators. It was a difference I didn’t understand at the time.

I coasted through three years of online education with a 3.76 GPA. I’ll be lucky to complete my first semester at SDSU with a 3.0. The difference between online and traditional college is about the same as the difference in the cost of a tank of gas between an SUV and a compact car.

Unlike traditional college students, a lot of online college students are also employed full time. I’m a father of two children, so it’s a necessity I continue to work full-time. My online courses didn’t require a lot of time commitment. As long as I had an Internet connection, I was able to “be at school.” I didn’t even have to read most of the textbooks because almost every test was open book. In addition, I enrolled in one class per semester. SDSU, I quickly discovered, was not as easy. None of my courses can be completed via online assignments. Three of the five consider classroom participation in overall grades and only two utilize open book tests. Of those two, one is philosophy—and student better have an understanding of the source material if they have any hope of earning even a C. Plus, I clearly didn’t comprehend the time commitment involved with five courses requiring chapters-worth of reading each week.

None of this factors into my two biggest struggles. My first struggle was finding myself surrounded by college freshmen. Worse, my Communications 103 course required partner and small group speeches. Not only did I have to find something—anything—to be able to relate with my peers, I had to work after class with them. I could only imagine the phone conversation a coed would have with her parents as she explained why she had to meet a 44-year-old man in the library, at night. I found myself living in fear of being ambushed by Chris Hansen, the host of NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” series.

The second hardest obstacle to overcome has been writing essays. Most of my online courses required papers, so I was used to writing. What I wasn’t used to was writing them for a professor who actually cared about content and grammar. It’s another area where my advanced age came back to haunt me. It took weeks for me to recover from the anger and embarrassment of getting a B in a freshman-level course. But I’m glad I was graded this way because it provided a welcome eye-opener for me.

Not only do I like drama, I love a challenge. I’m now up-to-speed on the flow of an SDSU semester and synched in to the way our professors grade assignments. I figure this kind of knowledge will make the upcoming spring semester a breeze. And should I meet Chris Hansen, I’ll merely shrug and say the condoms and Happy Meal aren’t mine.