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5 lessons learned that prove it’s never too late to go back to school

A woman wearing glasses sits while working on a laptop, with a book on the table in the foreground.

More than 40% of Oregon State University students who learn online are over the age of 30. Michelle Orr was one of those students. After a long break in her academic career, she earned an Oregon State bachelor’s degree online while living in Germany.

By Melissa Whitney
Oregon State University
Enrollment services specialist

At my high school graduation party, I received a card with an attached magnet. On it was a quote from George Elliot:

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

At the time, I had no idea how much I would come back to reflect on this quote, because as we know, “life happens” — and sometimes the plans we had laid out for our lives and the idea of what our future would look like feel very out of reach.

As an enrollment services specialist for Oregon State University Ecampus, I speak with individuals at various stages in their educational journeys. I finished my degree as a nontraditional student — someone who might be a bit older or is often returning to education after a break. That gives me a unique opportunity to challenge the stigmas that surround the idea of obtaining a degree later in life.

Melissa Whitney, an Oregon State University graduate and enrollment specialist, stands in a farm field at dusk holding a large lens camera.

Melissa Whitney is an enrollment specialist for Oregon State Ecampus. She re-enrolled in college in her 30s and has since earned a degree and microcredential with OSU.

When I connect with older prospective students, they often carry a sense of shame or embarrassment about not having completed their degree at what they perceive as the “right” age. They may feel that they missed their chance or that they are somehow behind their peers.

However, my goal is to offer a supportive and encouraging perspective and to use my own experiences as someone who returned to school later in life.

Turning loss into purpose

At the age of 30, I re-embarked on my journey to complete my bachelor’s degree. Before this decision, my educational path was marked by attending various schools in different states, changing my major multiple times, and enduring unfulfilling, monotonous jobs. Along my journey of self-discovery, a profound loss entered my life when my mother passed away from cancer. Three months later, I lost my grandfather unexpectedly, and about a year later I lost one of my best friends in an airplane accident.

These losses greatly altered my perspective on life. I knew that tomorrow was never promised, and if I wanted a change, I had to make it happen.

With the encouragement of my family, I applied to Oregon State. I decided to visit the OSU campus and meet with a couple of advisors. After meeting with an advisor from the College of Liberal Arts, I suddenly felt like I had a plan and a purpose, something I had been lacking, and was so excited to complete my bachelor’s degree in sociology. It was a decision that changed my life in ways I never imagined.

5 pearls of wisdom — and actions you should take

It is important to remember life is a journey that unfolds differently for everyone, and many factors can affect when and how someone pursues higher education. There is no set timeline for personal and academic development. Want proof? More than 40% of Oregon State’s online learners are over 30, so you’ll be in good company.

Here are five things I have learned through my personal educational journey and conversations with those returning to school after being away for some time:

1. Challenge age-related stigmas: Some still hold onto the belief that education should be completed at a certain age, but I encourage you to reject the idea there has to be a set timeline to achieving this goal. There can be so many diverse paths to obtaining an education.

2. Embrace life’s twists and turns: Life is full of unexpected developments. People may have taken different paths due to personal responsibilities, career changes or other life circumstances. These experiences can be valuable assets and provide a different perspective when you return to education. When you return to school, you’ll be able to use your life experiences to your advantage.

3. Explore new areas of academic interest: As we get older, sometimes our interests change, and often that means returning to school and pursuing a different major than the one you started in, or enrolling in classes to gain new skills. The college experience allows for exploring and discovering what genuinely interests you, and sometimes that involves changing your educational path.

This can look like coming back to school after several years, earning a postbaccalaureate degree in a major that is your true passion, taking classes for personal enrichment, or gaining specialized knowledge through an additional credential.

So embrace the change. It’s a normal part of the process.

4. Seek support from others: Inspiration and support can come from unexpected places. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek out others who may have returned to school later in life, such as the Ecampus student ambassadors. They may be able to empathize with your concerns, highlight the benefits of returning to college and offer solutions to specific challenges.

Your friends and family can also offer reassurance and provide ongoing support. Remember that the decision is ultimately yours.

5. Take a leap of faith: So often there are a multitude of possibilities that remain undiscovered until we find the courage to venture into the unknown. Regardless of our choices, time will continue moving forward whether we decide to act or not.

However, there are periods in our lives when the time for action is now, and you must take a leap toward your dreams and have faith that even in uncertainty, there will be rewards waiting.

Embrace the idea of lifelong learning

Since completing my bachelor’s degree, I have continued taking online courses to explore other interests and broaden my skill set. I recently completed a microcredential online in the business of viral content creation where I honed skills in writing, content creation for social media, and developing a business plan.

My goal as an enrollment services specialist is to encourage and empower prospective students like you. You can continue your educational journey at any stage of life. I hope that my personal experiences can help you realize it’s never too late to go back to school — to be who you want to be — and dismantle the age-related stigmas that can hinder personal growth and educational aspirations.

Connect with an Ecampus enrollment specialist like Melissa by phone, email or live chat. They’ll help answer any questions you have about learning online at any age.

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