It was a few minutes before class started, and I was chit-chatting with the young lady next to me. We were casually friendly: we would say “hi” if we saw each other in the hall, and that was about it.
As an older student, I wasn’t really looking for deep, lifelong friendships with my younger classmates. As a realist, I certainly didn’t expect it; early in my first semester back in college, I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t have a whole lot in common with “the kids.” I’d also immediately picked up on the disdain the kids had for older folks in the classroom. I was perfectly fine with just having a few people to chat with here and there.
“Do we have class on Monday?” she asked me.
“Nope,” I said. “Sunday is Veteran’s Day, so we have Monday off.”
“Cool,” she said.
“Veteran’s Day is my birthday,” I blurted out, immediately regretting it.
“Oh, really?” she said. “How old are you turning?”
Among college students, a birthday is a big deal because it might just be that all-important 21st.
I hesitated. This was always awkward. I am blessed and cursed with a very youthful appearance that is incongruous with my actual age. Usually, mind-blowingly incongruous. At the time, I was about to turn 39.
“How old do you think I am?” I challenged her with a grin. I decided to play it with humor.
“20?” she asked.
I shook my head. “39,” I confessed.
“Really,” I said.
Her face registered both shock and dismay. I could almost feel her growing colder, backing away mentally.
Indeed, her attitude towards me immediately changed. In the coming weeks, she became less and less friendly. By the end of the semester, she only talked to me when it was necessary regarding classwork, such as critiquing each other’s essays. The only other variable that had changed was that she knew my age. It was a little disappointing that she had no interest in even casually chatting with me any more. She occasionally nodded at me in the hallway… when she couldn’t avert her eyes quickly enough.
As I said earlier, I was neither looking for- nor expecting to make- close friends in college as a non-traditional student. If I somehow happened to make a real friend or two along the way, that would be fine with me, too. Sadly, the girl in this story isn’t the only student to freak out a little and back away from me. To be fair, there have been a few who were definitely surprised, yet not repelled.
That disdain many students have towards older students is real and pervasive. I don’t mean to scare any would-be non-traditional students, but I’d be irresponsible to avoid discussing it.
A big part of it, I think, is a generational thing. I’m old enough to be my classmates’ mom, and I imagine that might be a little bit uncomfortable. You’re not really their peer, and it’s difficult for them to reconcile that. As a result, they feel that they need to edit their words and behavior around you. Think about how you acted around your parents’ friends (and friends’ parents) when you were your classmates’ age. You probably tried to stay on your best behavior, lest they tell your parents! I think the same thing is going on there with traditional and non-traditional students.
There is an invisible but very obvious boundary between traditional and non-traditional students. If you learn quickly enough that you are on what they perceive as their territory, you’ll be fine. An older person who is a little too friendly is often viewed by young people as slightly creepy, even when your intentions are innocent. Also, remember that you may be in college, but you’re not 20 years old again. You absolutely do NOT want to be the middle-aged fellow saying, “Hey guys, let’s party!” That’s embarrassing and creepy. Don’t be That Guy/Gal.
Another major factor is the wisdom that comes with age and experience. Non-traditional students tend to come across as know-it-alls to younger students. We have a “been there, done that” attitude that is perfectly normal for our age, but is completely distasteful and preachy to young people. They’re still learning all this Life stuff that we’ve already mastered. We’re also usually closer to our professors in age, which I think aligns us with “the enemy” in the kids’ minds.
This may all sound discouraging and sad, but there is some good news. College doesn’t have to be a lonely time. If you take classes in the evenings, the traditional/non-traditional ratio will likely be in your favor. Non-traditional students do tend to flock together, and you can make friends during your time on campus. Also, almost every college has a club for non-traditional students, which will give you the chance to mingle with people with whom you have more in common.