A friend of mine confided in me yesterday, over coffee, about how it felt to go back to school. He’s an older gentleman, extremely successful in his career, and retirement aged, although hardly retired. So for the most part what I heard was the typical story of the older student that I know so well. He didn’t know if he’d be accepted, he didn’t know if he could perform and keep up with all the youngsters, he didn’t know if he’d fit in. And of course in typical fashion he was accepted, did extremely well (though he’s too modest to say so) and he fit in just fine. What got me, however, in this relation of his experiences, is when he reached the point of that sinking feeling in his gut, that point when he confronted all the work ahead of him.
The expectations of an older student, regarding university education, can be just as unrealistic as anyone else’s. People frequently have a pastel-colored idea of what it’s going to be like, and they willfully focus only on the positive side of things. Then very often when students encounter the reality, and run smack into all the hard work, and stress, and weekends spent working at home, and the isolation of exam period, they feel like someone cheated them of the experience they signed up for. After all, you can tune in and watch any number of television shows depicting a university environment, but you never actually see anyone do school work, do you?
When you take an honest look at what’s ahead of you, and see it for what it is, the task can seem really daunting. Lots and lots of real work to get done, this term, next term, and the term after. It’s the same feeling you get when the glow of your New Year’s resolution wears off and you have to think about what it’s really going to mean to lose thirty pounds. Or when you decide to clean your home, top to bottom, and you’ve got to open your eyes and see what a job it’s really going to be. It really is like a punch in the gut. You thought the decision alone was the hard part. Now you’ve got to actually do it.
What interested me most in the older man’s story is not that he felt the same thing we all feel sometimes. Of course he felt it – age doesn’t change the fundamentals. What interested me is that he felt it before and simply forgot. He was in university forty years before and felt the same thing then too. The stress, the anxiety. That looming feeling that there might be something due today or tomorrow and you’ve somehow forgotten about it, or failed to study for a quiz that might come at any moment. This isn’t a new problem. It isn’t something that’s “happened” to university. It was always there. It’s just that once people get out, it’s far easier to remember the good times. It’s easier to remember them when it comes to lecturing kids, and it’s easier when it comes time to think about going back oneself.
I don’t have any brilliant advice about stress management right now. I’ll think about it for a while and maybe I’ll come up with something good. But stress happens. It’s very real. Just like anyone else, some mornings I feel like the most I can hope for is just to make it through the next two weeks without anything awful going wrong, and then maybe Reading Week will make a difference. What I can offer, however, is the certainty that however bad things may seem this experience isn’t something new, or individual, or uniquely wrong with post-secondary education today. It’s been happening for a very long time now. And somehow I find that makes me feel better. If so many people have gone through it in the past and come out okay then it seems reasonable to hope the same can happen for all of us, too. Something to hold on to, maybe, any time it all just seems like too much.