I'd walk through the quad, and think "Oh my God...These kids are so much younger than me."
February 27, 2012 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Tell me your stories about/examples of people that either started college later in life (after 21) or returned to college after dropping out, and went on to become famous or wildly successful (or both!) in academia or their chosen careers.

Similar to this question, except I'm specifically looking for people that completed their degree(s).

Personal anecdotes are appreciated as well.
posted by Seiten Taisei to Education (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The iconic architect Philip Johnson went back to university at 35.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:18 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: I had dinner with Jeremy Jackson as part of an informal guest speaker thing for my graduate department, and he told a story about how he flunked out of undergrad his first time around. He said that his life turned upside down once he started working on his doctorate at Yale and now he's ridiculously successful and renowned.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:25 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: I had a chemistry professor who flunked out of jr. college and spent a few years as a stoned out surfer dude before returning to college, getting an Ivy PhD and then a tenured faculty position at a top state university. Not sure if this qualifies as "wildly" successful, but he runs a very respected lab, and certainly took a nontraditional path to get there.
posted by apparently at 5:36 PM on February 27, 2012

Noel Ignatiev dropped out of college after three years, worked in a steel mill for a couple of decades, and then returned to college when he was in his forties and got a PhD in his fifties. He's a controversial figure, but I would say that he's definitely famous, at least as far as academics go.
posted by craichead at 5:40 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor and the author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, took a pretty indirect path to becoming an academic. He dropped out of high school, later earning a GED, before enrolling in psych classes at a local community college. He finished his BA at 24.

The New York Times did a profile on him in 2003.

Not surprisingly, the book pretty much argues for taking a long view to happiness and doing things at one's own pace.
posted by kettleoffish at 5:44 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buckminster Fuller was expelled from Harvard twice, before he eventually got his Sc.D. from Bates.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:07 PM on February 27, 2012

I go to UPenn and I'm in the LPS program (the program for non-traditional students). They have some alumni testimonials on their website: B.A. B.F.A.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:09 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: This person isn't famous, but... One of my best friends from grad school was a high school dropout who just sort of bummed around Canada and the UK for about 10 years, doing drugs and sky diving. Eventually, she ended up in California doing menial work and decided to go back to school via junior college. Ultimately she transferred to UC Berkeley, stayed for a masters, then did a very successful PhD in a hard science at one of the top 5 programs in the country. She's published well, and is now on her second prestigious postdoc. She started grad school as the oldest member of our class at 35.
posted by juliapangolin at 6:21 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

my college's alumni magazine just had an interesting feature on a very non-traditional student, whose first novel was just published.
posted by dizziest at 7:04 AM on February 28, 2012

Best answer: I knew someone who never went to college when young, but instead had a number of different careers including nursing and web development. Later in life, I think late 30s or early 40s, she decided to act on her long time enthusiasm and do a degree in Archaeology.

She graduated with a superb degree from a highly rated university, and had the option to go do a PhD, but I believe she went to work for a museum instead. We lost touch so I'm not sure where her career went subsequently, but it's a very imperssive story of what a person can achieve that didn't go to college at the usual age.
posted by philipy at 7:06 AM on February 28, 2012

I went into the USN right after high school, and then to work after that. Never intended to go to college. But in my early 20s I lost my driver's license (stupid car wreck, not completely my fault, but enough) and my car and my job, and sheepishly had to move back in with my parents (long before it was so common). Enrolled in community college and discovered a great love for books and ideas (and beer and girls) and managed to corral a few work-study opportunities, part-time jobs, scholarships, grants, assistantships, internships and fellowships (I was always poor, you see) and ended up with a master's. Which helped open the door to a career that has allowed me to travel the U.S. and the world on other people's money and enjoy a terrific work-life for decades. I can't say I'm "famous" or "wildly successful" but I became well-known in my very competitive field, have won national awards, have been in the Guinness Book of World Records and had a hell of a good time. And I'm real modest.

College: I recommend it at any age.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:11 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd say going from "poor" to "enjoy[ing] a terrific work-life for decades" qualifies as wildly successful :).
posted by Seiten Taisei at 2:13 PM on February 28, 2012

Best answer: This is me!

I had a tough time growing up. At age 16, I dropped out of school to become a hippie. Got into drugs hardcore. Eventually burnt out on all that. Went back to school at age 21. Still partied a lot in school, but was dedicated to my studies in a way that most of my (younger) friends weren't. Graduated with a BS in computer science and a 3.2 GPA. This was in 2003, not a terribly swell time to be looking for a job, but find one I did; not a terribly well-paying one, but it got me out of the sleepy Midwestern backwater where I was living, and brought me to New York City, one of the greatest cities on earth! I stayed at that job for five years; I would have left sooner, but my boss promoted me and gave me interesting work and ultimately wound up paying me a market salary. I started that job as a junior dev and left as a senior dev. Years later, I moved to San Francisco -- another one of the world's greatest cities! -- partially out of curiosity, partially because my industry's really big out here. I'm now working at my dream job : senior dev (hopefully team lead soon) at a really fun tech company, doing genuinely interesting work with bioinformatics and high-performance computing! I can't say the road here was easy -- think lots of hard work and long hours -- but ultimately I'm really happy with where I landed.

I'm actually really proud of the non-traditional path my life and career have taken -- even my 5 "wilderness years" between ages 16 and 21. Especially my "wilderness years". I learned a ton about life in that time, and I have no doubt those experiences made me a more open-minded, well-rounded person. If nothing else, living in modern-day America without an education helped me realize the value of an education.

Were I to do it again, I wouldn't change a damn thing.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:34 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Would Alton Brown qualify?

"...he was dissatisfied with the quality of cooking shows airing on American television, so he set out to produce his own show. In preparation, he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute, graduating in 1997."
posted by The Dutchman at 8:15 AM on February 29, 2012

Response by poster: Yes
posted by Seiten Taisei at 8:45 PM on February 29, 2012

Best answer: The first person that comes to mind for me is Craig Venter. (aka Darth Venter to some people in the biotech field.)

He's really quite the character...he did poorly in school as a kid, and sort of lacked direction after graduating high school, so he ended up serving in Vietnam for a few years. Came back to the states, enrolled in community college, and then got involved in all sorts of interesting scientific research after transferring to the four year university. Eventually ended up getting into a huge rivalry with Francis Collins (of the NIH) and raced the government in sequencing the human genome. He won. Shortly thereafter, Venter and Collins were forced into close proximity of each other for a photo that was then plastered on the cover of Time magazine, much to the amusement of those well aware of their bitter rivalry.

Nowadays he surfs around in his multimillion dollar yacht(s) scooping up interesting algae and bacteria for various (possibly nefarious) purposes. In 2010, his institute created the first synthetic life form.

Marie Curie
also got a late start, but contributed a lot to science once she got going.

For what it's worth, I know how it is being an older student (I'm assuming you are one as well). I wasn't able to afford college until age 22, and I'm 23 now. I don't have a personal success story yet...but hopefully I'll have one someday!
posted by Estraven at 8:43 PM on March 5, 2012

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