Being a student at 45

Last spring I went to visit the Central Students Counselling Office at UAS and said I was planning to study CS next winter, but was 45 years old. Not a problem, the counsellor said, at least not technically: there is no upper age limit. So far, so good.

Next I went to see one of the students counsellors at the CS department, a professor this time, and said the same thing: I wanted to study CS, and was 45 years old. “So what?,” said the professor. Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know. At least the faculty, it seemed, wouldn’t give me funny looks and wonder why I’m even here. Of course I would stick out among my co-students, I was warned, and should expect to be called the Semesteropa, the semester granddad; and I had best wear camouflage clothing. I looked down at my  wool cardigan, T-shirt, and bluejeans and wondered briefly what kind of camouflage would make me look even more inconspicuous. I wasn’t exactly wearing a coat and tie, after all.

Still, when the term actually started in September, I felt kind of uncomfortable about how this would turn out: being the one guy in the classroom who could conceivably be everybody else’s dad. I pictured my co-students as fresh out of school, almost exclusively male, somewhat nerdy, in hooded sweaters, and possibly not given to integrating an obvious outsider gracefully. I was wrong.

For one thing, the freshmen in Applied CS are much more heterogeneous than I had expected. To start with, many are not fresh out of school, though some obviously are (the youngest was still 17 in September). Quite a number had previously worked in various positions, sometimes for several years, and many of them not in the software industry. Some had studied something else first (though usually not graduated). A few have quite interesting backgrounds, including a former knitwear fashion designer. While at 45 I am by far the oldest, several of my co-students could most decidedly not be my kids, not even purely biologically. In short, I don’t stick out quite as much as I feared. And by the by, quite a number of us are female. Only a few are obviously nerdy, and barely anyone wears hooded sweaters. At least not with the hood on.

And I think the students counsellor professor underestimated my co-students. As far as I can tell, they are not ageist (unless they are saving it for talking behind my back, which I doubt) and extremely tolerant of diversity. There were initially some curious questions about my biography (but then we were all of us somewhat curious about everybody else and what brought them here), and at one point my co-students stopped inviting me to their nocturnal bar-hops, but only because, having a family waiting for me back home, I declined every time. Other than that, there was never a moment when I felt I wasn’t a part of the group in more or less the same way as everybody else. And looking back I must say that this came as at least a small surprise to me.

Interestingly the only time when I feel I am somewhat different from the rest is when I find I occasionally sympathize with the professors. I taught my first university course seventeen years ago and have been teaching continuously for the past ten years. In some situations I imagine I know how they feel, faced with certain situations or questions; I have been in their shoes long enough for that. And that sometimes puts me on the fence when my co-students talk about our professors. And sometimes, particularly when there is very little age difference (out Math 101 professor is just a few years older than I am), it means I feel like I am talking to a colleague when actually I am talking as a student to my professor. These situations are a bit odd.

But all in all it feels very good being here. A lot better than I could have imagined, or had a right to expect. And then it’s also just fun to be back in school, to learn new things, and to see that, for the three or four years I’ll be here, what I do matters, at least in the sense that somebody notices. And then there is the perspective that even afterwards what I learn here might be good for something. Being an academic often felt like being in a cocoon. Sure, I have published quite a number of books (some very lengthy) and articles over the years, but for all I know nobody ever read them, maybe except those unlucky few who had to review them. I certainly wasn’t saving the world or doing anything else undoubtedly useful. This here feels much more like it could conceivably at some point be of some use to somebody.

And isn’t it simply great to do something radically different with the second part of your life?




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