Lifelong learning: Adults return to the classroom

In 2012, shortly after my youngest child left for college, I went back to school to earn a graduate degree in history. I began a seven-year journey that culminated in 2018 when I walked across the stage at Kent State University to receive a master’s in cultural history. I felt proud of the commitment required over many years to earn this degree while managing complex adult responsibilities, including a demanding job.

At the outset of my quest, I doubted whether I would be up to the task, able to balance the heavy load of reading and writing with my commitments to family and career. I embarked on this goal as an experiment, taking it one class at a time and trying not to be overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Little by little, I tackled the classes, taking advantage of online learning, independent studies and one self-designed class on innovation in Renaissance Italy that involved time at the KSU Florence campus.

Earning a graduate degree later in life is no small undertaking, but plenty of adults these days are picking up the challenge for lots of different reasons. In my classes, the ages of students ranged from early 20s to early 70s. Some older students may have been pushed into early retirement and were seeking to launch a second career. Some may have found that they needed to update their skills in order to remain on the job. Others might have found that they wanted to increase their earning power through enhanced credentials. Some might have been driven by simple curiosity and a burning desire to learn. Whatever the reason, the blend of voices and perspectives from different generations and varied life experiences generated engrossing discussions and enhanced learning.

As I reflect, I think a couple of drivers influenced my decision to return to school. I had long held a personal goal to augment a direction I had pursued as a young adult when I was a graduate student in European art history. I wanted to know more about visual culture in the United States. I also wanted to enhance my work in the field of philanthropy, and my adviser understood exactly what I needed to achieve that goal. He compiled reading lists on the history of philanthropy, business, free enterprise, consumerism, advertising and U.S. cultural history. These readings expanded my horizons and ultimately brought new energy and direction into my work at Burton D. Morgan Foundation.

I opted to seek a graduate degree because I wanted the cohesiveness of a planned course of study, but there are other options. For those who seek the joy of learning, Ohio’s Program 60 allows residents age 60 or older to take tuition-free, noncredit/nondegree program courses at public universities on an instructor permission, space-available, audit basis at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

Higher education is not just for 20-somethings. Lifelong learning can be for anyone who wants to stay engaged, view the world through fresh lenses and enrich their lives and work.

Deborah D. Hoover is president and CEO of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation, which champions the entrepreneurial spirit, contributes to a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem and serves as a leader in the field of entrepreneurship education.