On Being A 31-Year-Old College Freshman

The diploma mattered, but who I had become as a result of my journey mattered to me so much more.

I secretly fished the thick catalog addressed to my younger brother out of the recycling bin and spirited it up to my room. I didn’t want my family to know how badly I wanted something I believed I couldn’t have. It was easier to pretend I didn’t care about school. But, my eyes grew wide and my heart fluttered beneath my pajamas when I read about courses on writing, art history, science, and music.

At 21, I was homebound. I hadn’t finished high school—I had not even completed ninth grade.

As a child, I loved everything about school. I savored learning, had a passion for reading and enjoyed writing—it came naturally to me. Lacking in team sport skills and possessing the kind of singing voice best displayed only in the shower, I reveled in finding something I was good at.

Excelling in school made me feel safe and seen.

At the end of 8th grade, I began getting severe headaches. Fatigue, muscle and joint pain soon followed. I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. After two rounds of oral antibiotics, I gradually got well enough to enjoy the end of my summer.

In September, I began 9th grade. A mix of nervousness and excitement flooded my veins. I couldn’t wait to be an adult and now, I was one step closer. But, three weeks later, I had a relapse which triggered secondary problems. I spent the next 12 years drowning in doctors, prescribed drugs, and endless tests. Several years into my illness, the prognosis was that I would never get any better than I was then—a dismal prospect the inner fire of my teenager rebellion was determined to burn down.

Through a combination of holistic treatments—like weekly acupuncture sessions and adhering to a healthy diet—I gradually recovered over the next seven years. By the time I was 30, I had gotten well enough to move out on my own, trading the solitary confines of my suburban Philadelphia bedroom for the kinetic motion of New York City. I got an internship and then a job with a music management company while continuing to delve more deeply into the world of music journalism—something I had begun before I was even able to go to concerts regularly.

My passions guided me, but underneath something was missing. I hid that I didn’t go to college, let alone high school. It was easy to master the art of deflection when the topic came up—which it often did, usually in dating situations. I felt deep shame for what I had not done, what I had not been able to do. Finally, after a bad break-up, I decided to forgo sappy movies and chocolate ice cream in favor of getting my life together. It seemed a more fulfilling way of avenging a broken heart.

On a cold January day, my gloved fist rapped on the door of a local community organization in Brooklyn that offered GED preparation classes. I was there to take a placement exam—my first non-medical test in over 15 years. Sitting under fluorescent lights with my #2 pencil in hand, I nervously filled in my answers. Much to everyone’s surprise—including mine—I scored too high on the test to fit into their classes. Instead, they provided a book and a quiet place to study—and access to an instructor if I needed help with a particular topic.

A month later, they gave me a job tutoring students in English as a second language. When I sat in the elementary school cafeteria where the ESL classes were held, the irony that I had gotten exactly what I had asked the Universe for—to go back to school—was not lost on me.

After passing the GED, my sights were firmly fixed upon college. I went to a New York City university to get information from the admissions office, only to be told that one had to have high school credits in order to enroll. When I said that I was 31 and that clearly was not going to be possible, but that I had scored in the top 1% of the nation on the GED, the admissions representative told me it didn’t matter. I asked what I should do. She replied that I shouldn’t consider going to college.

I was crushed, but became more determined than ever.

Like many adult learners, I opted to begin at a community college and attend part-time. I was working, and with lingering doubts about how much I could manage with a history of illness, this was what worked best for me. It also gave me space to quell my secret fear: What if I couldn’t succeed as a college student? So much of my identity as a younger person was wrapped up in being a good student. Illness had taken so much and I wasn’t sure how much had been returned to me.

I quickly discovered that taking classes during the day meant that I would be one of the oldest people in the room. I enjoyed my younger counterparts, but found that classroom discussions took on a different flavor when there were students of all ages. I shifted to mostly evening courses when possible and realized how common it was to see older students. This trend has continued.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013 there were 8.2 million adult learners over age 25. I was in plentiful company.

In the span of two semesters, I fell in love with being back in the classroom. Talking about the story structure of Joyce’s “The Dead,” seeing contemporary photographer Chris Jordan’s work artistically portraying the impact of our mass consumption and learning how to give a speech (refer to talking points, don’t memorize) made my neural synapses dance. With each passing day, my world became brighter, my mind sharper.

When I unexpectedly got seriously ill again in 2009, I continued taking classes online through my school, grateful that so many options now existed for students, especially those who are non-traditional. After completing my Associate’s degree with high honors, I was offered a scholarship to a university to complete my Bachelor’s degree. It was the same school whose catalog I had perused so many years before.

At The New School, I thrived. The workload was full, the pressure constant—but gloriously, I was nurtured to grow beyond myself and to understand more fully the effects that individuals have on their communities and the larger world. During my last semester, I had an increasingly difficult time walking—my hip had been fractured, but I hadn’t gotten a firm diagnosis yet. During the last six weeks, I relied on my friend and classmate Erin to help me get from class to class. Cab drivers had to help me in and out of their cars. Shooting pain coursed through my leg with each step and I worried constantly that I would fall and be unable to get up.

But, I was determined to finish what I had started. I graduated with a perfect GPA. I was too sick to attend my graduation and cried into my pillow as I watched the live stream of the ceremony from my bed. But, I had a sense of accomplishment that transcended what I had known. The diploma mattered, but who I had become as a result of my journey mattered to me so much more. I now not only had the tools to become my best self, but the belief that it was possible. Indeed, education taught me that anything is possible.

Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. She currently is at work on a memoir about coming of age with chronic illness. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik

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