With a few years of college under her belt right out of high school, but never the time to enroll in a degree completion program, Tracy Kelley, now 42, of Fort Collins, Colo., spent nearly a decade raising her kids after leaving college. Her husband's job required the family to move repeatedly, and once they settled in Colorado, Kelley went back to college, eventually earning a bachelor's degree and going on to graduate school with the help of an online master's degree program.
Tracy finished her bachelor's degree at Colorado State University and her online master's degree in education at University of Northern Colorado in December 2010 at the age of 42. She spoke with About.com to discuss her experiences as an adult learner and non-traditional college student.
About.com: What college experience did you have before choosing to go back to school?
Tracy Kelley: I went to college right out of high school, and did get a couple of years of college in, but then got married and moved out of state. I always intended to go back, but first I was an out of state resident, and then we moved a couple more times, and, well -- life kind of got in the way. Then at age 33 I went back to school full time to do my undergrad. At that time I got a Bachelor's of Science in Human Development and Family Studies, and also did a two-year teacher licensure program in Early Childhood Education.
About.com: What made you decide to complete a master's degree?
Tracy Kelley: I knew the state would eventually require it for my job as an early childhood special education teacher at a public school, so I figured I might as well go ahead and get it done. One year after I started the master's program, my district did make it a requirement and gave me 3 years to complete the degree. I finished it [in] December of 2010.
They required either an endorsement in special education in addition to my undergrad, or a master's degree in special education. There was little difference in number of courses required for the two, and a master's degree will increase my pay scale at work, so I chose to do that. My master's degree was completed entirely online, which helped tremendously. To this day I have never stepped foot on the University of Northern Colorado campus.
About.com: What do you think your children have learned/will learn from watching you go back to school?
Tracy Kelley: I hope they learn that it is easier to complete college right out of high school, but also that they learn you are never too old to complete a goal. My kids were 5 and 6 when I completed my undergrad, and 11 and 12 when I finished my master's degree.
About.com: What's the most surprising aspect of going to school in your 30s and 40s?
Tracy Kelley: I was a lot more worried about starting my undergrad in my 30's as I was not sure how all of the young students would accept me. I was at Colorado State University, which seemed huge to me, and completely filled with young kids. I remember my first day of classes, looking at how they were dressed and what kinds of backpacks they were carrying, and just wanting to blend in and not be noticed. That's pretty funny to me looking back now.
But I was surprised at just how supportive many of them were, although I was the age of some of their parents. I had one fellow student contact me a couple of years ago and she said "I am now married and have a baby, and I appreciate just how difficult it must have been for you to go back to school full time with a family." I thought that was really nice.
I would also say I found it surprising how competitive I was in regards to my grades. It was really important to me to graduate at the top of my class for both degrees, and I put so much more effort into my courses than I would have at a younger age.