Mature student in University with younger student body - how to fit in?
April 19, 2014 6:02 AM   Subscribe

I expect to return to university after a 2 decade absence, to facilitate a career change. What should I expect, socially speaking?

"The next youngest guy in his class was half his age. They must have thought he was some far-out old man..." -Apocalypse Now

Hi MeFi,

When I first attended university, after being bullied in middle and high school, my social approach was to keep to myself, keep my head down and hopefully people would ignore me and I wouldn't get bullied. Well they ignored me all right, but at the same time looking back I missed out on clubs, social activities and the like. (Additionally many of the social activities were aimed at drinking alcohol, and I didn't drink, so that didn't encourage me to get involved either).

But I'm wondering if this time, there might be an opportunity to get more involved socially in activities on campus... or is there?

Thinking like this, I am wondering if I am starting down the path of a mid-life crisis? Am I trying to recapture lost youth? I mean, I'll be probably twice as old (!) as many students on campus. I'm at a loss to know really what to expect. If I try to fit in with a twentysomething social scene, will I just be seen as a cringe-inducing weird old dude who doesn't fit it, creepily trying to socialize with younger women, surrounded by kids? Should I just realize I won't fit in, the social situation isn't aimed at me and focus on my academics, and not extra-curricular activites?

Or am I once again letting introversion and social anxiety get the upper hand? If there are clubs for skiing, astronomy or whatever, is there a reason I should not try to get involved? Should I at least try to be friendly and see what comes of it?

I guess I'm trying to get a feel what to expect, and anticipate how to respond.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you will be fine. I've just gotten finished with a long second tour through academia during which I've been a decade older than my cohorts. Aside from my having less enthusiasm for the alcohol-fueled party scene, it's been fine socially. There are a ton of interesting people to be found in a university setting, and commonality of interests almost always trumps commonality of age, at least in my experience.

Do seek out grad students, though -- they're a bit easier to relate to than undergrads. I have no idea what those 18 year olds are thinking...
posted by killdevil at 6:30 AM on April 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you'll find lots of the young adult life rather annoying. I'm not a non transitional student but as I get older I find myself occasionally in college age groups and many of the problems and social activities are so so young.

But my wife is a non traditional student. She has actually made connections with her professors. She has been offered part time work through them and done volunteering with the student disability center. She has some social life with students but it seems the connections made with people closer to her age have been more rewarding. Also her student friends seem to mostly be seniors and on the more mature end.

I'd look for groups that focus on your student population if they exist.

Be friendly. Seek out activities you enjoy. But You may find it more rewarding to seek out a club that isn't focused on the 18 to 22 crowd and is focused for everyone. Clubs and activities exist outside of the college.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:33 AM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is there a group for nontraditional students? You could find others there who are outside the usual age cohort.

Socializing with your classmates now lays a foundation for future networking. I would focus on the more serious types of social events, like showing up to department sponsored events, and joining and becoming a leader in the student chapter of your professional organization.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 6:34 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would focus on activities that are about a shared interest (astronomy club would be fine, skiing would be fine) but not so much the ones that are purely socializing (keg parties might be weird), and avoid hitting on women significantly younger than yourself. And then just see how it goes.

But yes, you are not going to have the kind of social experience you might have had when you were younger, because for a lot of people university is about growing up and you've already done that. Honestly, you may find that you are the one who finds them cringe-inducing at least some of the time.
posted by shattersock at 6:35 AM on April 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

To be honest, when I went through law school, I was enough older than the bulk of the students that I had trouble feeling terribly involved in extracurriculars, and I wasn't that much older. Some things are a bit different--like, groups that focus more on volunteer service, that sort of thing--but the kinds of activities that are more about making friends? Nothing wrong with dipping a toe in, but throwing yourself into it with the idea that you're going to recreate The College Experience is not likely to go well.

But there will be other older students on campus, I'm not saying you're going to be friendless or anything, just that you need to adjust your expectation away from what might have been when you were younger.
posted by Sequence at 6:35 AM on April 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

You shouldn't assume you'll be alone - I was 32 when I started college again, and there was a sizable cohort of returning adult students, many who were older than me by quite a large margin.

Also, lots of the kids will still be annoying children, but most of them will be nice young adults who will be cool and fun to hang out with.

The main thing though is that you will really feel the differences in your cultural references - You might drop a Goonies reference and get blank stares, but then they will make references to things they grew up with and you'll have no idea what they are talking about. It's a lot like moving to a different state or country; the language is the same but many of the meanings are totally different.

You won't likely be interested in the social events, but then again, free pizza is free pizza so don't feel like you have to exclude yourself just because. But, you won't have as much free time as they do, so you'll likely just concentrate on those extra-curriculars that have something more substantial to offer - like intramural sports or robot club or something - and aren't just social events.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:46 AM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the theater groups I was in in college was community-oriented, not just campus oriented, so the casts of some shows were more age diverse. The 40-something guy who come to the cast party, had a beer and was pleasant was not an issue. The 30-something who would try to party like he was still in college was.

We also had an academic program that targeted people who were older students (this was at a women's college, so can't speak to gendered dynamics) and there wasn't a lot of interaction between the two groups outside of class that I saw, but I don't think there would've been an issue with older students joining shared interest groups, but I think they would've had to have had a pretty strong interest to want to socialize with us, because I have to imagine we were pretty immature and annoying a lot of the time.

Focusing on your academics is a good idea. I felt like there was a gap in class performance between traditional and non-traditional students in a lot of cases, just because the traditional students had not lost the habit of being students, while the non-traditional students were working to regain it. I was on the flip side of that when I went to grad school, as one of the older students in my cohort. It's a particular skill set that takes some effort to dust off.

I would suggest not trying to fit in with the social scene, but find a social scene in which you fit. Does your campus have a part-time undergraduate program for professionals? Are there any groups associated with it and/or are you eligible to take classes (usually night or weekend) in it? This would give you an opportunity to interact with more people closer to your age. If there's a graduate program and there are interest groups that grad students and undergrads both join, you'd likely find a good mix of ages there. If there's an interest group that you think is really cool, check it out and see how it works for you.

Be friendly but steer clear of the party scene and you should be fine. If there are program networking-type social events that involve alcohol and you drink now, stick to one or two drinks -- those things can take weird turns when too much boozing gets involved.
posted by EvaDestruction at 6:52 AM on April 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Even if you're not one, hang out with graduate students. Even at schools with a largely traditional undergraduate student body, the age range of graduate students is much wider than it was two decades ago. Lots of late 30s / early 40s in business school, law school, policy school, medical school, etc., and not a small number getting PhDs either.

Don't try to join groups / clubs which are primarily for 18-21 years old to socialize. That would be weird.

In terms of other mostly 18-21 year old groups that have a broader-than-socializing angle, get a buddy before you come in. Two 40-year-olds on the ski trip are a lot less awkward than one.
posted by MattD at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

APO: coed service fraternity at most colleges. You'll get involved with the greater community your college functions in and not just the student population.

Radio: You'll be the old fogey, but run your show and accept the different musical taste and you'll likely be able to run an old fogey radio show with a bit of cultural context. Keep your head down though - Ahoy matey, thar be egos!

Club Sports: hard to be competitive, but potentially rewarding for some physical activity and some decent bonding experiences. Don't slide into a Bruce Springsteen 'Glory Days' rendition - 18-26 is generally peak performance.

Party and Bar Scene: probably not the best idea unless in the context of a different organization and then totally a good idea. Being the old guy at the bar or the old guy at the party with an attempt to just find a social circle can pretty much lead to bad things that you've already been there and done that and that you don't need to do again.

Theater and Arts: Lighting, sound, and set design benefit from attention to detail, and focus - not just talent. Age generally helps develop those first two... so you can likely be an asset.

College late in life won't likely give you the prospects of playing Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School), but you can still have a good time and be part of the community.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:18 AM on April 19, 2014

If introversion and social anxiety are issues for you, then this may be a good transitional moment to screw up your courage and decide to do things differently than you have in the past: a "fake it 'til you make it" sort of opportunity. However: I'm not sure that campus extra-curriculars are the most fertile ground on which to make this happen. In addition to all the usual barriers that make it hard for you to socialize, you're adding in another degree of difficulty in that a lot of the participants are going to be in different places in their lives and yes, some kids in some organizations might find your participation a little weird.

To be honest, if you have any "geeky" sorts of interests it will be those sorts of groups that tend to be more welcoming toward differences of all sorts, including age difference. So if you've got an interest or potential interest in--I don't know--tabletop gaming or robotics or creative writing or fencing, those might be good organizations to look into. Skiing--not so much. There may also be more "campus community-oriented" groups that draw a wider body of participants that just undergraduates.

If you really are into skiing, it might be better to--as I mentioned above--seize this transition as a time to do things differently but seek out a non-university ski club to join. As others have mentioned, you're simply not going to be able to re-create that university social experience you missed out on the first time around. But you may be able to ease yourself into the sort of grown-up social experience you're missing out on currently due to your introversion and social anxiety.
posted by drlith at 7:19 AM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

maturity is an asset, not a liability, as long as you hang on to it and not pretend that you're 20 again. one or two solo cups of beer at a kegger is ok before you get back to your books, but no more than that. no partial disrobing, no climbing on the roof because you can reach it, no exhibition of prehistoric dance moves, and above all, no hitting on women half your age. i know this is a burden, but it's the lightest of the burdens that come with aging.
posted by bruce at 7:37 AM on April 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

It really depends on the college. I went to a school that was focused on undergrads, and only had a handful of graduate students, but some programs really catered to non-traditional students. For example, as a Landscape Architecture undergrad, the first year was all kids like me, straight out of high school. In the second year, we lost some of those people to other programs, but doubled in size with non-traditional students who came from various backgrounds. The average age was still pretty young, but it wasn't the same feeling as the first year, and I really appreciated it. Our class got along really well.

As for extra-curricular activities, my two clubs were college radio and the anime club. The college station had some professors and alumni as DJs, even though most were traditional students, and everyone got along really well. The anime club had a few older students, but also some folks who weren't in college, and just wanted to geek out on anime, and everyone got along with their shared enjoyment of anime.

I remember a Viet Nam vet who came back to college while I was an orientation leader for incoming students. Even though he was quite a bit older than all the other undergrads, he was taking part in the week-long orientation program, which also had "returning student" groups, to differentiate from traditional high school-to-college track kids.

In short: chances are you can make it work. You can skip the drama around partying, but find some good groups that aren't just young 20-somethings.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:37 AM on April 19, 2014

Some of this really depends on the demographics of the University you will attend. My public state University skews a little older on average. I am a professor and what I observe is that the younger students mix very well with the older students in my academic program. They work well in study groups, they seem to have a good rapport in class, and they work together on extracurricular activities that focus on academics. In many cases, the older students (particularly those in their late 20's or early 30's) act as role models for the younger students. Many of them come from a military background and are excellent leaders.

What the older students do NOT do though is try to act like 18-22. You would be making a mistake if you go back to University as a 40 year old and attempt to experience or recreate the social scene that you missed as a 20 year old. But that doesn't mean you won't find yourself at a bar sometime with a study group having a few beers with the younger crowd. Just be your age-appropriate self.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:40 AM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Did you ever think, "If I knew then what I know now."? Well, now you do.
posted by brownrd at 7:51 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I returned to study with a laser focus on academics / long-term goals and haven't had time to socialize anyway (and, although there are activities for students in residence at my university, most students commute and don't want to hang around campus).

But I've been pleasantly surprised by my incidental interactions with younger classmates. Most of them are good, sweet kids (I guess that's kind of how I see them) with interesting things to say, and it's refreshing to be around people who aren't as cynical as I've become. I've yet to have a negative interaction or be made to feel old. But I try not to bring the expectation they would into conversations - I don't go on about my past and try to resist the urge to give unsolicited life advice, though I have offered my thoughts and tried to be helpful when asked. Talk is oriented around the class and program - stuff we're doing or planning. (They seem to be surprised by my age when it does come up, though. Suspect it's down to style of dress - I like clothes and keep [very] roughly up to date, so the age difference might not be immediately apparent.)

Like you, I was inward-turning my first go-around - went to class, did my work, that's it. But the opportunities that make a difference for grad/professional school do involve stepping up and making some kind of public stake in your commitments (for competitions, awards, research assistant jobs), and taking what you're doing seriously. I found this challenging for a while, because I was embarrassed about even being there - I'd hoped to sneak in and get the grades I needed and sneak back out. I did feel a bit of judgement from some of my peers outside of the school context for going back. But, within the world of the campus and program, none of that matters. If you're going to be there, be there, and go for the chance you've taken.

Good luck!
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:18 AM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Returning students are pretty common these days, and once you start talking about grad students, no on even notices. If you don't flirt, don't respond to flirting, and never ever ever date a student who is younger than you, then good people won't care about the age gap.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:20 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the past 2.5 years, I've been a full time student taking undergraduate classes (though I already have my degree—I'm back to get pre-requisites for another program), and I'm roughly a decade older than the first time undergraduates.

The primary way I interact socially with other students (of any age!) is through study groups. I have a policy that, so long as I have the time, I don't say no if someone asks to study with me (and the first couple semesters, I was the one doing the asking, since I wasn't yet known by my classmates). This has worked out really well for me. I'm not particularly interested in joining extracurriculars (I'm an adult with a life and friends outside school!), but since I am spending most of my time on campus, I do really value having social interaction while I'm there. Through study groups, I'm interacting with others on a one on one or small group basis, rather than just showing up anonymously to giant lectures, and I've developed some good friendships.

I do think it helps that the program I'm doing is a well-defined set of courses; after the first semester, there have been people I know in every subsequent class I've taken.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:29 AM on April 19, 2014

Oh, and also I have found that students tend to gravitate toward those in their own age group. My primary study partners over the past couple years have been people in their late 20s or early 30s, and I know a few 40ish students who study together.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:30 AM on April 19, 2014

Having taught classes with a mix of traditional and non-traditional students (and been a traditional student in with non-trads), my observation is that, generally, if you like kids that age and are tolerant of their antics and do not hit on them, they are happy to have you around. For a lot of them, this is the first time they've had a "full-grown" adult as a peer, and they're really interested in that and in your experiences, as they're starting to frame themselves as adults and want to sort it out. They also don't generally have a sense of social (or romantic) competition with the non-trad students, so they're a little more open to friendship. You have to be a little bit tolerant of large quantities of stories about stupid drinking and dramatic romances, but as long as you don't mind that, they're pretty fun to be around and will probably be happy to include you.

But yeah, a lot of my non-trad students became MY (the professor's) friends, and that was great. It requires a bit of delicate navigation, but not much more than any other professional friendship.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:40 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm in a similar spot - mid-40s back at college after two decades. I wasn't bullied but I was terribly shy growing up. I had a few friends but I still I don't believe I missed out all that much by not doing the clubs and groups. I think most people don't have !!The College Experience!! Animal House was only a movie, you know? I suspect most people are like us and have a pretty uneventful college career. Like the news, we probably only ever hear about the most outrageous parties with the fighting/vomiting or the ski trips where someone broke a leg or the wild stargazing outings with whatever goes on at those events :-) Group activities probably always seem more dramatic than most actually are.

With regard to this edition of my schooling: I'm not particularly social in my normal life and I don't imaging I'd enjoy palling around with a 20-something group. They are fine and I am fine but we don't have a lot of common ground. And that's fine. What I am finding is that I have a rapport with the traditional students that are serious about school. I don't imagine we'd hang out outside of class but I like talking with them in class.

Sorry to ramble. To try and answer your questions - use your instinct and pay attention to how others are responding to your interactions. By all means be friendly and take some chances. Assume the positive - most students are there to learn and meet people not be jerks to their fellow students. If you really want to do some socializing, maybe take a look at academic-related groups rather than the extracurricular groups like skiing or similar (which I think are probably designed to give young people some social structure when they are off on their own for the first time). And if you see non-traditional students in your class, maybe say hello. They might be happy to meet someone in their shoes. (And I think there are going to be more and more of us until the job situation improves.)

Good luck! You should be proud of yourself for going back to school despite your anxiety.
posted by Beti at 9:06 AM on April 19, 2014

I will be honest with you. When I was a senior in college a 50+ year old man joined my honors department as a freshman and despite our best efforts not to be, my whole class was really uncomfortable around him. He acted like he believed he too was 21-23, but as a man without children and very few social skills, he came off like a predator whenever he wormed his way into our conversations, dominated classroom discussions, or attempted to dispense fatherly advice. He even ended up in our dorms somehow, which was a bizarre oversight on the part of our res life department, but again, people were uncomfortable because this man was not willing to respect boundaries or behave maturely enough to earn our trust or respect.

What I guess I'm saying is that if you are someone who struggles with social interaction to begin with, or if you classify yourself as awkward, yes, the younger students may feel uncomfortable in your company. Seek out grad students or other adult learners as you will likely have more in common with them than the early 20-something's. And yeah, never hit on any of the younger people. Be friendly but with a healthy level of reserve. I do think my classmates respected and admired our guy for coming back to school, by the way; we just had red flags go up when he started interacting with us because of his boundary ignorant behavior.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:18 AM on April 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

My college radio station is about 1/3 alumni/staff members who are well outside the 18-22 age range. YMMV, of course, but its a pretty welcoming community if you find your station to have similar demographics.
posted by lownote at 9:22 AM on April 19, 2014

I'll nth the recommendation to focus on clubs that have a career/charitable function rather than purely social. I would also caution to not swing too far in the direction of being the advice giving elder (which doesn't seem to be your problem, but people sometimes overcorrect). I would often notice returning students trying to use a 600 person lecture hall as a chance to monolog about their kids, or work experience, which really isn't the best use of everyone's time. On a similar note, it can be hard to admit but it's often true that the 21 year old that's been running an activity for 3 years knows how to do it better than you, even if you have 20 years general workforce experience. You have a lot to share, but there's also a lot you can learn.
posted by fermezporte at 9:49 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would look for clubs or student groups on campus that interest you. I was very involved in my college radio station, and we had a diverse membership that included older students (and alumni and staff).
posted by radioamy at 9:56 AM on April 19, 2014

I've been in school as a mature student far older than my classmates.

You will make friends.

There will be more mature students than you expect. There will be instructors younger than you.

Some of them, both students and instructors, will be complete wackos so beware.

Don't make a thing about your age and other people generally won't. Remember you are an equal to your classmates. Your age, life experience, etc earn you no special status. Don't try and claim it. Don't get pissed off when you don't get it by default. The worst mature students are the ones with chips on their shoulders. You're going back to school. That means you are trying to change something that didn't work out first time around. Keep that in mind and stay humble. You've had a go and made mistakes you are fixing. Others haven't even had a go yet. They get to make their own mistakes. You are not their parent so let them.

Socialize with your classmates. If they go for a beer at the campus pub go with them and have a cola. Some of these people will become future colleagues. Get to know them and be a dependable, respectful and reliable person. Stay above the drama. Don't creep on the young women. Sure young classmates will be immature sometimes but who isn't. I genuinely enjoyed doing things I had written off (Counterstrike Thursdays were a hoot even I did keep getting killed by Korean exchange students with headshot bots).
posted by srboisvert at 10:23 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I saw a study that reported the average age at a certain university was 34. There must be a lot of "elders" to balance all the 18to 22 year olds. Don't worry about it! You might not be rushed for a fraternity but you will be among many others updating their degrees.
posted by Cranberry at 1:07 PM on April 19, 2014

I'm going to go ahead and nth college radio.

My college radio station has people of all ages, from high school kids on up to retirees. Plus, they're all super friendly people who are really nerdy about music, technology, or both. It's fantastic. College radio is the thing I will miss the most when I graduate.
posted by topoisomerase at 6:37 PM on April 19, 2014

There was a book from a few years ago called My Freshman Year by Rebecca Nathan, who is a professor of anthropology at some second-rate Southwestern-US state school. She decided to spend her sabbatical year as a "participant-observer" anthropologist in a primitive culture: undergraduates at her own university. As the book title implies, she moved into a freshman dormitory and tried to fit in. She was an utter and complete failure down the line. The kids didn't accept her as a peer, and she spent the whole year desperately lonely, creepily eavesdropping on their conversations.

Her problem was that she specifically limited her interactions to the freshman dormitory. She didn't join societies or activities of mutual common interests. Unsurprisingly, eighteen-year-olds looking to build their own personal friends-groups of chosen peers didn't want to include her -- there is no "dorm society" one is automatically part of, just because one lives in a dormitory. But she didn't want to step out into the world of older students, or to get into clubs and hobbies; she tried to stay in freshman land.

So if there's a lesson from Rebecca Nathan, it's that in-the-dormitory college life is not welcoming to mature students -- but if you find something you and college students are already interested in, which happens to be organized through the college, that's different.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:26 AM on April 20, 2014

I believe the younger people there may be away from their parents the first time and sort of hypervigilant about any "parent" type behaviour they may see in any interaction with anyone over 25. Some of them just age-ist. So I'd just stay well clear, resist any urge to throw your adult weight around (let people make their mistakes), be charming about the age difference.
posted by yoHighness at 10:19 AM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just finished school as a returning student and my best experience with other students was when I accidentally stumbled into a class with a bunch of other older students. It was such a relief to talk about grownup things with grownups again! Not that there's anything wrong with the young students, but their interests are just different from mine (e.g., I took a communications class that involved doing and presenting a collage about yourself to the class--there was a preponderance of 18-year-old guys talking about all the cool cars they love and musicians I've never heard of and . . . yeah). If your school has lots of young students and few older ones, you might look for classes that attract working adults: evening, accelerated, or weekend classes, for example. The 9:00 a.m. weekday classes will be full of young students and you might feel more out of place there.

I didn't go out of my way to try to make friends at school, but I never felt like young students felt weird about the age difference. We were sort of all in the same boat, so we related as fellow students, even though I'm 30 years older than some of them. I just tried to be open and friendly and not bossy (yoHighness' comment above is good advice, I think) and the age difference didn't seem to be a problem in class.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 11:00 PM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

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