Returning to School: The Unexpected Payoff

My wife went back to college to get a degree in her chosen field, but things don’t always go the way you plan

Last spring, I came home from work one evening and my wife of 23 years sprang some rather surprising news. "I signed up for a class today at Moorpark College," Aimee told me. "I'm going to get my degree."

When I recovered my power of speech, I regretfully blurted out some less-than-supportive advice: "Can't you pick a school closer to home and save yourself a commute?" My wife's eyes narrowed. "That's all you have to say?" she asked. "Not a word of encouragement?"

After some serious back-pedaling, my curiosity went into overdrive. Why now? Aimee, 53, had last attended community college in 1986. She left when she decided to pursue a figure skating career as a competitor, performer and coach.

This wasn't the first time Aimee had brought up the idea. A few years ago, I remember she had actually collected her transcripts, but put off reenrolling because she was busy raising our two children and coaching fulltime. Now one kid was in college and the other just got his license, the first marker of his independence. It was time to get serious.

As I discovered once I got over my shock, there were plenty of practical reasons for her to hit the books again. Despite being a sport dominated by female athletes, skating in the post-competitive, post-performing world is very much the domain of men. Aimee was frustrated watching skaters she groomed move on to veteran male coaches, no more qualified or skilled then her. And due to the sport's waning popularity, more coaches were fighting for fewer students. Clearly, Aimee had gone as far as she could go without a degree. She was interested in becoming a certified figure skating off-ice trainer, which requires a B.A. If not now, then when?

The timing and circumstances were right, but old fears still bubbled to the surface. "I'm scared to go back," Aimee confided to me. "I grew up thinking I was an athlete, not a scholar," she says. "And I've always felt insecure about not having a degree."

Despite feeling like a space traveller observing an alien subculture—commonplace things, like using a flash drive to save computer files, were completely foreign to her—she threw herself into the classwork. "I hadn't written a paper in 27 years, and that was on a typewriter no less," she recalls. "But I watched my daughter and her friends succeed at this, and knew I could too."

Gone was her precious free time, replaced by classes, homework, study groups and field trips. Gone too were Aimee's earnings as a skating coach. Fortunately, I have a steady fulltime position as a media relations director at a local hospital, which provided us the security of income and benefits. Still, finances would be tight. We decided to tap our SEP IRA account to help defray tuition expenses. We figured that part of Aimee's future earnings would eventually go to replenish our retirement savings.

And then—wouldn't you know it?—everything changed.

Plan B emerged when one of Aimee's classes stood out from the rest: child development. It changed her entire career trajectory. In retrospect, it made perfect sense. For as long as I have known her, Aimee could walk into a room filled with adults and kids and the children would just gravitate to her. "I love kids. That was my greatest joy about coaching," she says. "My professor was incredible. I learned the first five years of a child's life are critical and those early years can affect a child for the rest of his or her life."

Changing fields is normal in the course of the education process and if Aimee hadn't taken those first difficult steps and gone back to school, she wouldn't have discovered her true path. By conquering her fears about returning to college, she opened her horizons and discovered passions she might never knew she had.

Newly inspired, Aimee recalibrated her blueprint. The new goal: earning a B.A. in child development with a long-range plan of becoming a preschool or kindergarten teacher. She might even open her own school one day. A couple of weeks ago, she got a letter in the mail that reaffirmed her journey toward rediscovery. "Go look at what's hanging on the refrigerator," she says. Mounted next to some baby pictures of our kids was a letter from the college that read, "Congratulations! You have earned your place on the Dean's List for the Fall 2013 semester."


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