Oldest student in the room at COCC? Don’t sweat it

It's never too late to get a degree

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Hannah Flaherty, 31, poses in COCC’s Barber Library on Oct. 23, 2019. (Claire Benke/For The Broadside)

On her first day of Writing 121, Hannah Flaherty knew she recognized her instructor from somewhere. After briefly wracking her brain, it dawned on her that she and her Central Oregon Community College instructor were in the same social circle during their teenage years.

“We definitely went to a few parties together,” she said with a laugh.

Occurrences such as this may not be terribly unusual on community college campuses, where student ages can vary.

According to COCC’s web site, the median age of students at central Oregon’s only junior college is 25.6 years. This is slightly older than average American college student, who are typically between 18-24, according to a 2017 survey by the Hamilton Project.

While older students may have spent more time outside of school, they are equally able to succeed at COCC, according to Andrew Davis, COCC’s Student Life Director.

“You can do it,” Davis said. “Ask questions, stay focused and work hard.”

People go back to school for a number of reasons. For Flaherty, 31, debilitating health problems prevented her from pursuing her education in her early 20s.

“Going to college right out of high school was not really a possibility for me. I had to finish high school through homeschooling, so for a long time it just wasn’t an option because I was so sick. Then things sort of stabilized and I was like, I think I’ll try going to college.” said Flaherty, who has been studying at COCC for two years and plans to pursue a career in social work or human services.

Despite possible challenges and awkward run ins with buddies-turned-professors, many older students say that going to college after 25 can be a wise decision. Not only can having a degree help one get ahead in the workforce, but it can also expand one’s horizons – both mentally and socially.

“Everyone has been so nice.” said Flaherty, who’s favorite classes include Lilli Ann Linford-Foreman’s Acting and Public Speaking courses, and Owen Murphy’s Human Sexuality class.

“I like classes that have a discussion basis.” she said.

Student Sarah Golden gave similar sentiments.

“College enriches your life and teaches you diversity,” Golden said. “It’s so cool to get to know others who are different than you.”

Golden, 34, moved to the U.S. from Germany 15 years ago.

Her first experience at COCC was in Michael Gesme’s Music Fundamentals course.

“I understood nothing.” Golden said. “I knew conversational English, but not day-to-day stuff. There were a lot of misunderstandings.”

After being a stay-at-home mom for six years, Golden entered COCC’s Massage Therapy program as a way to help support her family. She recently earned her Massage Therapy Certificate, and is now pursuing an associate’s degree to help get ahead in the job market. Aside from mastering the English language, Golden’s biggest challenge has been balancing her academic life with raising two children, ages 7 and 8.

“It’s doable.” she said. “It’s all about setting priorities. It’s been a big learning experience for me.”

With her kids taking top priority, Golden often has to select classes that will work around her children’s school schedule. Her husband often helps when her academic life conflicts with her family life. When Golden had to take evening classes, he frequently left work early to pick up their kids from school and make dinner. At one point he took on a side job as an Uber driver to help financially support Golden’s endeavors.

“My husband has been extremely supportive. I couldn’t do it without him,” she said.

When asked what tips they have for others in their age range who are considering returning to college, both women offered some advice.

“Just try it.” Flaherty said. “My advisor told me to keep knocking on doors and and keep asking questions. As long as you’re polite about it, you’re never going to get a bad response.”

“Do what works for you and go at your own pace,” Golden said. “Take a class or two, see what you think, and go from there. What do you have to lose when you’re learning new things?”

Claire Benke is a student at Central Oregon Community College. Reach her at cbenke@cocc.edu. This story was produced as part of Publications Lab, a COCC course, and not by staff of The Broadside, an independent, student-run news organization located on the COCC campus. 

 

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