I’m not your traditional college student. Not at all. But, I am a life-long learner.

My high school had three tracks of study; business, academics and vocational. Since I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after high school, I opted for the business track. Yep. Getting a job right out of high school sounded good. After all, my parents had done that. It was a simple, honest life that worked for them and I was sure it would work for me.

I landed my first job when I was 16 years old as part of a work study program. My first job was answering telephones and interacting with customers at a local real estate office. From there, I worked for a savings and loan and a couple of credit unions before I started my career in the electric utility/hydropower industry. I had a very successful career and I was very passionate about the industry, natural resource issues and finding balanced, sustainable solutions.

Most of what I learned, I learned on the job. I did a lot of research and read a lot of books, manuals, regulations, research and policies. I was blessed to have inspiring and knowledgable mentors and coaches. I was a sponge. The more complex the issue, the more I dug in to understand it better.

I accomplished a lot of which I’m extremely proud. And, I did it all without having the traditional “sheepskin.”

But, something still tugged at my heart. And, I had to admit. It was the fact I didn’t have that degree. At the time, we lived in central Washington state, so my dream of attending The Pennsylvania State University wasn’t an option. However, attending the local community college was and I went for it without hesitation.

For seven years, I worked my day job and took evening classes — one class at a time — to earn my associate’s degree. I also took a few correspondence courses from Washington State University and, yes, Penn State. Some of you may not know what correspondence courses were in the late 1980s, so just let me clear that up. It meant ordering your book and course study guide, reading the assignment, hand writing or typing your answers, sealing them in an envelope, putting a stamp (or stamps) on the envelope and sending it off to the university. A couple of weeks later, I’d receive feedback and my grade for that particular assignment. I took proctored exams.

I was the first student to graduate with an Associate of Arts and Sciences through evening and correspondence classes. My, how things have changed.

More now than ever, adults are going back to school to achieve their educational and career goals. While Penn State had been offering distance learning courses to Pennsylvania farmers for over a hundred years, they formally launched Penn State World Campus in 1998 to reaffirm the university’s commitment to providing accessible learning to all desiring it. I saw an advertisement in the Penn State Alumni magazine (my husband is a graduate) for World Campus in 2011, and I said, “I’m all in!” Did I have reservations? Hell, yes!

Penn State adult learners are over age 24. Check. They are veterans or active-duty members of the U.S. military. I thank all those that are serving or have served, but I cannot check that box for myself. They are more than four years out of high school. Check. They have a desire to keep learning that brings them back to college. Check three out of four.

Apparently, I was part of the trend of more and more older Americans heading back to school, often as part time or evening students, and the rate of enrollment is rising faster than students of typical college age. In 2009, roughly 40 percent of all college and graduate students were 25 years old or older. That figure was expected to rise to 43 percent by 2020 as 9.6 million older students were headed off to campus.

Nearly 14,000 adult students opted for Penn State World Campus. I was one of them. How could I resist? It was Penn State where I’d always dreamed of going. And, they had an undergraduate degree in Energy and Sustainability Policy (ESP). What could be more perfect given my passion for hydropower!

For five years, I took classes related to my career in the energy industry. Well, most of them. I never did grasp Calculus; in fact, it was the only class I ever dropped. It was just voodoo to me. Thankfully, the ESP program dropped Calculus as a requirement of the degree program or I may still be working on my degree. I conducted my Chemistry assignments in the kitchen. Completed my renewable energy Internship/work study requirement in Martinique and Barbados. Conducted a whole house energy audit and designed a renewable energy project for my home. Took three semesters of French with oral exams with my instructor on Skype and proctored written exams. The whole experience was fascinating.

Perhaps the most intriguing and rewarding part of attending college as an adult learner was having the ability to share real world knowledge and experience in a world of academics. Because, let’s face it. We truly need a blend of theory and practicality. Especially if we’re going to have a chance of making balanced, sustainable policies of any sort, including energy and natural resources. No apologies. I’m just an energy geek.

Adult learners play an important role in academics. I’m so glad I had my college experience later in life and I wouldn’t trade how it all worked out for anything.

Five years later, I was walking the stage at graduation at University Park, Pennsylvania. I can guarantee you I was the oldest student in the sea of graduates. I was so thrilled to be there and excited to have my family there with me.

There are many advantages to being the oldest (and some might say the wisest) student in class. If you’ve considered going back to school, but need more convincing, check out a few advantages of being an older college student to help you make up your mind.

  1. You know what you want. Your wants and desires will change over time so don’t beat yourself up just because you didn’t follow the traditional path of high school, college, find a job and work until you retire. You may not have known what you wanted back then, but you’re more mature now and most likely know a lot more about what you want out of life. So, make a choice to learn — and take the timing out of the equation. It will make a big difference.
  1. You have technology on your side.  No more correspondence courses thanks to the internet and awesome software programs that work for an online environment.
  1. You have better time management skills.  Enough said. Trust me, you will manage your study time to fit in around your family and life.
  1. You are more disciplined.  You know what you can achieve. You’ve already accomplished a lot and you know you can do more. You’re disciplined and motivated.
  1. You know who you are. You are awesome! You have more experience, more knowledge and more wisdom than you did when you were younger.

Don’t let age fool you. It’s just a number. You’re never too young or too old to learn or to help others learn. I’ve been on both ends of that learning experience. And, I loved all of it. So, enjoy your learning journey — at any age.