Returning to School as an Adult

This profound nugget of wisdom came from, of all places, the Dear Abby column in the newspaper.

A 36-year-old man whose life dream was to be a doctor had frittered away his college years. He was considering a return to school but fretted that finishing his degree, medical school and an internship would take seven years. He would be 43 by then. He asked her advice.

“How old will you be in seven years,” Dear Abby asked, “if you don’t go back to college?”

Damitra Hilton

A growing number of adults are heeding her implicit advice. More than 40% of college and grad students are over 25, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Roughly a fifth are over 35.  The average age of a graduate school student at Northeastern University in Boston is 50.

Damitra Hilton was one of those students. A married mother of two, including a daughter in college at the time, Hilton traveled every Saturday to the Lowcountry Graduate Center for her master’s degree in social work from the University of South Carolina. The program included one full day of classes each week for three years and 16 hours of internship each week for the final two years.

Finances is an Issue
For Hilton, who enjoyed the support of her family and accommodation from her employer, one big obstacle was the finances. Though she funded the entire cost with student loans, a national program offers public service professionals easier terms and forgiveness after ten years of payments. Hilton parlayed the master’s degree into a raise at work that more than covers the payments.

No Time to Sleep
For Meg Wallace, a student in the same program, a bigger issue was finding the time to sleep. Just a few years out of undergrad when she returned to school, and without the responsibilities of a family, Wallace could concentrate on her job and her schoolwork. Sleeping less than her usual 6-7 hours, though, was an adjustment. “I’m probably still working on that,” she admits.

Both women say the demands of school and work could be overwhelming at times, but support came from an unexpected place: the camaraderie of classmates.  “We vented to each other,” Hilton recalls.

Wallace says she made it through because she is highly organized. Hilton was determined not to fail. Both say the sacrifices imposed on employed students 


require internal motivation to succeed.

Is It Worth the Sacrifices?
Was it worth the invested time and cost, the reduction in social life, the many late hours, the self-doubt, and the missed birthday parties and weddings? Both women already had their current jobs – Hilton at My Sister’s House domestic violence shelter and Wallace at MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Nonetheless, both give an unqualified yes.

Besides improving their knowledge base and skills, both feel better positioned in their careers. For Wallace, that means the ability to supervise other social workers. For Hilton that meant a pay boost and a more “macro” view of the field.

“Make sure the decision is part of your values and you have the motivation to do it,” advises Wallace. “I wouldn’t recommend going back if it’s not truly something you want to do because it requires effort and sacrifices.”

Hilton is more sanguine: “Go for it. If I can do it with a husband, two kids, and a full-time job, you can do it.”