A Love Letter To Adult Students

As much as I’ve always valued your presence in the classroom, I don’t think I fully appreciated everything you do until I became an adult student myself.

Dear adult students at universities, community colleges, vocational schools, and wherever else you are,

This letter begins with a story.

Night classes were always my favorite part of the day when I was an adjunct professor, because they were typically filled with folks my age or older. But one evening in the middle of the semester, caffeine boost in one hand and Soup-on-the-Go in the other, I was crashing, and I could see in my students’ eyes that they were crashing too. About 10 minutes into my lesson, one student charged through the door with a baby on her hip, wrestling with an impossibly full diaper bag. Despite her best efforts to bounce the baby on her knee and calm her down, she cried through most of the class.

The other students – many of them parents themselves – offered advice and encouraging smiles. And then there was me. Who brings a baby into class? I thought, teeth tightening and blood pressure rising. It’s distracting. It’s inconsiderate. I got through the lesson and as I stooped to pack up my things, felt a hand on my shoulder.

“I’m so sorry about that,” my student whispered. “I could see that you were upset, but I just…I didn’t have anyone to watch her tonight.” She stroked her daughter’s hair. “I promise it won’t happen again.”

I continue to flush with shame when I think of that moment. I was 25 and selfish and agitated by what I couldn’t understand, and I wore it all over my face. In the college writing center, where I also worked part-time, we cultivated an environment where students would feel helped and supported: a culture of easing students’ stress instead of adding to it. And I had failed to do this in my own classroom.

As an adult learner, you’re part of a demographic that is on the rise, currently making up 40% of the student population and increasing at a greater rate than traditional learners. You likely have different needs than your younger classmates, like more frequently offered courses, evening, weekend, and online sessions, accessible career services, and advisors who understand your schedule. I’ve cared about and continued to stay in touch with students of all ages over the years. But there has always been something special about you. You’re not here because your parents told you to be. You’re here in the morning after working the night shift, and sleep will come later. You’re paying for this out of pocket, and sometimes, you’re paying your tuition and your child’s tuition at the same time. You want this in a way that can only come from having gone without, continuing to go without, because you believe that strongly in a better future for yourself.

If you’re Dolores, you bring your acoustic guitar to class and sing protest songs, remind the teenagers that their fight today comes from a long tradition of standing up and speaking out. If you’re Brittany, you stay on the phone with me when my evening bus breaks down and promise to watch over the class until I can get there – you even order us pizza for dinner. You jump in and take charge when you’re needed. You sit awaiting the moment when your years of experience in the military or at the plant or the other times you tried community college before become relevant, and you teach the traditional students that everything happens in its own time. You teach me, too.

As much as I’ve always valued your presence in the classroom, I don’t think I fully appreciated everything you do until I became an adult student myself. The first time I went back to school, I had really never left. I was 21 and started the semester after graduation. I lived at home. My job, just on the other side of town, was 30 hours a week and even less in the summer. Life was a comparative breeze to this time around, in my 30s, living in an apartment in one city and working an hour away in another, occasionally tutoring on the side for extra cash. I carefully calculate transit times, though sometimes D.C. traffic gets the better of me and I stumble in 10 minutes late, apologizing as I arrange the food I’ve accumulated throughout the day for tonight’s dinner.

There are more responsibilities and activities that fill my days now. I devour books as soon as they come in the mail. I ask about assignments long before they’re due, budgeting time in anticipation of a big meeting or an upcoming report at work. Now I understand that adult students who requested that I post materials ahead of schedule, who asked about certain assignments months in advance. We want to do it all, and we want to do it all well.

I think of that woman from years ago, holding her baby, every time one of my professors tells me not to worry about the D.C. traffic or brings food in for the class to share. I think of her whenever one of my students has to leave early to take care of a sick kid or asks for additional reading, hungry for their money’s worth. She reminds me to practice compassion, to be a help and not an impediment to your journey. We are all simply doing our best with what we’ve got, but you probably already know that.

Keep going.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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