By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
Here are the things that people will say if you are an incoming college student, returning or otherwise, over the age of fifty. You need help. You need lots of help. You do not know how to surf the internet or send an email. You might not even know how to use a computer. You are probably auditing the class and will drop in two weeks anyway, so why bother talking to you? You are doing this because you have nothing better to do. You are intrinsically less smart than your classmates. You are out of touch. You will waste the university’s time pursuing a degree; you are so old, why are you even here? Are you someone’s parent? You must be the instructor, you’re the oldest person in the room. Your input is invalid. Remember how clueless you are at anything more advanced than a rotary phone. Consider online courses. Consider not talking so much in class. Consider dropping. Have you thought about taking up golf? You look tired.
If you are a college student over the age of fifty—hell, over the age of thirty in some cases—you may be facing this kind of age-based discrimination on a regular basis. You have been deemed less worthy of a college education simply because you are older than most students. You are not being judged by your academic standing or character, but by a number out of your control. Ageism is very real on college campuses and should be addressed, but it does not feel like there is enough emotional and psychological support for adult learners as there is technological and academic support, and both kinds of support are crucial during the college experience.
This ageist phenomenon seems to be more heavily present at four-year colleges than two-year colleges. The average age of the community-college student tends to be older—someone who has a full-time job and/or a family and responsibilities aside from classes. However, four-year college student bodies tend to bend towards the younger side: 18-to-22-year-olds, many fresh from high school, who live at home or on campus and do not have a spouse or child.
The responsibility actually falls upon the traditional student to make the college experience welcoming for adult learners. We are the ones older students interact with on a regular, daily basis, more than the professor. Our attitude and behavior sets the mood; let’s make sure that mood is an inviting one.
When you meet an adult student in one of your classes, make time to learn their name. Don’t be afraid to say hi and strike up a conversation with them. Don’t assume the reason why they are in school, and be willing to listen to their story of how they got to your class. You don’t necessarily have to be friends with them, but be friendly. Make them an active part of your learning environment: involve them in class discussion; ask for their input on the material; invite them to study sessions and on-campus events. You may learn some invaluable knowledge from them, a life skill or a funny joke, or even just someone you can count on to give you the day’s lecture notes when you are out sick with the flu.
The age gap of the student body in college education seems like a wide chasm, but we can learn how to bridge the gap and bring students of all ages together—but only if we are willing to drop our ageist ideas and see people as people, not birth years.