I went back to college as a 50-year-old. These were the most surprising things I had to adjust to.

Christine Curley

Christine Curley

The author, Christine Curley, went to Rhode Island college to get her undergraduate degree in psychology after practicing law for nearly 25 years.

  • I first attended college in the mid-1980s before pursuing pre-law.
  • After 25 years, I went back to school to get my bachelor's degree in psychology from Rhode Island College. This fall, I'll be attending the University of Connecticut to get my Master's in social psychology.
  • Here are the most surprising things I had to adjust to as a 50-year-old college student.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When I first attended college in the mid-1980s, I was interested in psychology but switched to pre-law as a more practical career path for supporting my young family.

In 2016, after practicing law for nearly 25 years, I returned to school at Rhode Island College to finally get my degree in psychology. After obtaining my bachelor's degree, I continued on and obtained my master's, and this fall, I'll be pursuing my Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Connecticut.

Read more: 9 ways college is different for millennials than it was for previous generations

My first classes in college as an adult, or "non-traditional student," as my school might say, were equal parts terrifying and exciting. Terrifying because of the uncertainty of changing careers, knowing that I was likely to be the oldest person in the class, and wondering how or whether I would fit in. And exciting because of the thrill of embracing new experiences, meeting new people, and learning new subjects and theories.

I wouldn't be honest if I said the adjustments were easy, but they weren't as difficult as I expected, and the effort was more than rewarding.

Here are the most surprising things I had to adjust to as a 50-year-old college student:


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Learning new technology is hard — but it can be done

Learning new technology is hard — but it can be done

As a 50-year-old college student, I needed to adapt to new technology.

I had to become proficient in PowerPoint, Excel, Blackboard, and the various online tools required for communicating with professors and other students. I initially felt like a fish out of water, especially since most of today's college students were raised on technology and find it so much easier to navigate.

I found there was an extra layer of difficulty as someone accustomed to working on Macs, not PCs: In one class, when the professor was speeding through statistical data entry, I was compelled to ask the nearest student, "What the heck is a right-click?"

On the positive side, once I mustered the nerve to ask for help, help was always there (after some good-natured kidding) when I needed it from other students. It may take me a bit longer to put together a polished PowerPoint, but now I can do it.

I stood out in class — in a good way

I stood out in class — in a good way

As we get older, we like to think we still "look and feel like we are 20." Being around actual twenty-somethings all day blows that illusion to pieces.

As an older student, you need to let go of the fear of not fitting in and embrace your life experience as an asset you bring to class discussions and group projects. Speak up, ask questions, make comments — after all, the point of college is not merely to learn from books and professors, but to learn from each other.

One student asked me if there was Google when I first went to college, to which I responded that there wasn't even an internet. Rather than feeling like an ancient relic from the Stone Age, I felt respected for my perspective.

Cognitive processing does slow down as we get older — and cramming won't work anymore

Cognitive processing does slow down as we get older — and cramming won't work anymore

Like it or not, the speed at which our brains process information declines as we get older, and this decline begins in our thirties. Studying and memorizing new information was certainly harder than I remember from the first time I went to college, and it was a lot tougher to pull all-nighters on a regular basis.

On the other hand, life experience enhances a person's crystallized intelligence — the skills, abilities, and knowledge that is over-learned, well-practiced, and familiar. For example, I already had excellent time-management skills honed during my legal career, and being a mom at the same time I was in school and working helped me to cope with multiple assignments, projects, and exams.

Many of my professors were younger than me — and easier to communicate with

Many of my professors were younger than me — and easier to communicate with

At times it felt weird to be taught by professors who were younger than my son. However, all of my professors responded to emails, had open office hours, patiently described theories and concepts I found hard to grasp, and treated me no differently than other students.

Ironically, because I was more comfortable asking questions and seeking clarifications from professors than my peers, I often was sought out by the other students when they were nervous about speaking up.

After one exam, for example, some students were unhappy with how one of the questions was graded, and they turned to me to voice their concerns. After I made a successful argument on the class's behalf, the professor outed me, stating, "Aren't you all lucky to have an attorney to appoint as your representative?" — which actually strengthened my relationship with the other students in the class.

I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from my professors

I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from my professors

To get the most from your college experience, you must go all in. Resist the urge to retreat or get on with the rest of your day when class is over. Make time to study with other students, chat in the hallways, and sit with students in the dining hall.

And if you're asked to socialize after school with your classmates, say yes! One of my best times at school was a night out at an arcade bar playing retro video games, filled with unrestrained laughter and silly competition playing DDR and Ms. Pac-Man. I would have missed out on a good time and new connections if I had not stepped out of my comfort zone. These connections opened the door for discussions about my classmates' LGBTQ experiences, being first-generation students, working through past traumas and other stressors and anxieties.

As I work toward furthering my education in psychology, these informal chats with fellow students — who I now consider friends — gave me invaluable insights to younger generations, teaching me greater empathy for the different world that they have grown up in.

Pushing my boundaries of thought, learning, and relationships was a challenge that went beyond simply attending classes. It is a challenge I would recommend for anyone wondering "What if I went back to college?"

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