You are one of the smart ones. You realize that learning is a lifelong process that doesn’t end when you accept your last sheepskin. Now that you’ve been out in the world, you want to return and gain some more knowledge. Maybe it’s job retraining, something the average American will do an estimated six times during his career. Perhaps it’s to shift laterally or to obtain some necessary degree demanded for promotion. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and you feel like you are running a season behind.

Older students can find a return to the classroom daunting, but may find a primer on making the transition at “Challenges Faced by Adult Students Returning to School,” on Thursday, March 9, at 6 p.m. at Tiffany’s restaurant in Mercerville. Cost: $20. Call 609-627-5915 or visit www.iaap.org. Sponsored by the International Association of Administrative Professionals, this talk features Todd Sibens, senior program advisor for liberal arts and sciences at Thomas Edison State College.

Sibens’ own resume vividly mirrors that of many of the students he advises. Born in Brooklyn, he moved to Mercer County, where he enrolled in Mercer County Community College with a “Why am I here?” attitude. “I was 17, had no idea of what I wanted to study, and I discovered, not surprisingly, that studying was hard work,” he says. Within months, Sibens had dropped out and found himself working through a host of tedious odd jobs. This experience taught him what he definitely did not want to do with his life.

Returning to MCCC, he earned his two year degree, followed by a B.A. in contemporary arts from Ramapo College. After gaining his master’s in student personnel administration from Columbia University, Sibens did what he terms his “tour of duty in higher ed administration.” From Buffalo to Arizona, he advised college students in every aspect of their student lives. Finally he came to rest back at MCCC for a 10-year stint as advisor and then moved to Thomas Edison College. On the side, he has worked as a resume writer and executive head hunter.

An endless parade of bewildered students now tromp through Sibens’ office, each repeating the old familiar dialogue.

Student: I don’t know. What do you think I should major in?

Sibens: Philosophy. Definitely philosophy.

Student: What! I hate philosophy. Why should I pick that?

Sibens: Well, I love philosophy. You asked a question, that was my answer. What topics do you like?

Student: Well, I’ve always been fascinated with psychology.

Sibens: You like psychology. We offer psychology. What do you think you should major in?

Dumb as this little dialogue may sound, the student is less stupid than confused. All his days, people have been telling him where the money majors are (think The Graduate), what skills a particular company needs for the fast track, or what studies they, his informal advisors, especially enjoyed. None of that is relevant.

The returning student knows a great deal. He has been out in the world. He has seen appealing work — and less appealing work. He has seen just what education can do — and cannot do. He is far more serious about studying than he ever has been. He is ready. Now he needs to know where to go and how to get through this new hitch in academe.

Collegeaphobia. Since soldiers came home from serving in World War II and went back to school on the G.I. Bill, every older student has worried about standing out in classrooms full of teen-agers. But times have changed. Both private colleges and public universities have classrooms liberally spiced with life-experienced students. The young students have grown used to the salt-and-pepper coifs, and instructors have grown more sympathetic to the schedules of working students. Sibens notes that one Edison student finally rounded out his degree at the tender age of 86. You are not alone.

The mature, returning student has made himself more welcome because typically he is more directed and more determined. One tip, however. Your additional life experience does not require sharing at every opportunity. This is time for you to hold back your own pearls of wisdom and listen to those of others.

What to take? Whether tacitly or openly stated, many employees get the message that their upward mobility is over unless they obtain another degree. In most cases, any course of study is open to them. Sometimes, particularly when companies are helping fund the education, the degree must be within a range of study or even focused on specific skills.

“The great change is that all colleges have a much larger array of courses within each field,” says Sibens. If your firm mandates a science degree, you may choose nutrition, environmental science, or anthropology as a major.

Your best bet is to follow Sibens’ maxim and go with what major interests you most. Take the one course that sounds most intriguing. Then, if you enjoy the course, take six more courses in that field. “At that point, you have seven successes in academia and you should feel ready to take on the world,” says Sibens.

Guts and a bottle. Whether it’s history with all those incomprehensible dates and wars, or astronomy with its complex math, some course is bound to overwhelm you. Sibens’ advice is to “go out and get a giant bottle of Pepto-Bismol.” Choke it down and just plow through it. View this course as medicine. “You don’t have to like it,” says Sibens. “You just have to deal with it. That’s what adults do.”

Yet before you enter this terrifying course with teeth clenched, you might ask yourself why it terrifies you. You’re certainly not the same person with the same skills as you were when you got straight Ds in high school math. Granted, studying is the kind of hard labor that you have not shouldered in a long while. But Sibens notes that there is a difference between incapability and rust. More often than not, a student has the ability; it has merely grown rusty through want of use.

Finally, however much you may loathe this course, always show bewilderment, not distaste. Teachers and fellow students are much more likely to offer aid to the confused than to the openly sour.

Should you study in space? Most returning students find themselves juggling at least part of their former work schedule with the new load of classes. Today over 500 colleges and universities offer some forms of at-home learning. It works well for some students, and less well for others. Some students can only learn in a classroom, where the teacher is visible and classmates are on hand to provide insight. Some find this face-to-face interaction vital. Others find less distraction in their own home or office working on their own time.

Fortunately, it need not be a strictly either/or choice. Most programs offer a blend of in and out-of-class experience. In some cases, classes are done online or via mail at home, while labs, consultations, and exams are performed on campus. Most colleges at the student center or library provide free tutoring by fellow students.

Commuters face a special challenge, but nothing insurmountable, insists Sibens. The student who works in New York and lives in Princeton has no excuses. He can stay late at the office and, using his company computer or laptop, set up a distance learning study schedule. And guess what? They actually have colleges in New York. Manhattan Community College, as part of CUNY, offers a full range of courses, many of which can be blended with those of MCCC or Middlesex County College.

Going back to school takes commitment, time management skills, and, at least at first, some courage. The payback should be a greater range of career options, often at higher pay. But that’s not all. If you see learning as lifelong opportunity, you may find yourself not just with a bigger paycheck, but also with a richer life.

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