Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spunky Senior Author, Alicia Rasley, Teaches College English and Busts the Myth of Missing Braincells

It's Never Too Late to Start or Return to College
By Alicia Rasley, Instructor and Guest Lecturer

I've been teaching English in college for two decades, and during that time I've had all sorts of students— very smart twin sisters who hadn't yet finished high school, a heavy-metal rock star, a paroled murderer, an Episcopalian priest, a non-native English speaker escaping from oppression, and hundreds of "returning students." And so now, when I hear over-50s lamenting that they never finished college, I always say, "It's not too late," and hand them an application to my university.

Daffodils in England, Alicia's
Spiritual Homeland

In fact, I'm going back myself this summer, studying Shakespeare for a few additional credits! I've always been inspired by the example of my mother, who got her PhD in biochemistry at the age of 52, after raising eight children. My sister, a successful health care administrator, recently finished her BS degree, and I know our mother would have been proud, and then would have said, "So when do you start on your graduate program?" 

So if you've ever wondered whether you still have the stuff to succeed at college, I'm here to tell you "yes!" Not only do older (we call them "returning") students succeed at college, they're often at the top of the class. Yes—the ranks of the A students are dominated by returners. I've heard young students exclaim exasperatedly at catching sight of a few older students, "Oh, great. Here are the boomers, and they're going to ruin the curve and hog all the good grades!"

The Myth of the Missing Braincells
Yes, it's a myth. I know older students sometimes worry that they've lost too many braincells to compete with the young folk. I don't know how many braincells youngsters have, but I can tell you from experience that at any given time about 50% of those youthful cells are focused on what I as a part-time romance writer like to call "looking for love." (You might call it something else—they certainly do!)

Yes, while the returning students are conscientiously taking notes on my explanation of the structure of problem/solution essays, the younger students are flirting with each other and holding hands under their desks. Advantage: Returning students.

Alicia's husband, Jeff, isn't too busy
to help support a Nepalese village.

The Benefits of Busy-ness
Returning students sometimes worry, with justification, that there's no way to add classes, studying, and homework to an already overloaded schedule. Yes, my older students sometimes have day-planners that look like a symphony conductor's score.  But along with the job, the family, the volunteer work, and the hobbies comes an amazing ability to manage time. 

I have to refer back to my sister Jolynn. She went back to college when she had a more-than-full-time management job, four children (one with the very demanding activity of concert choir), the care for our elderly father, a hopeless addiction to fiction reading, and a very forebearant husband (but still a man, and thus with expectations of at least a bit of her time). What was she thinking, going back to school? Well, she needed just a year or so of credits to finish the degree that would qualify her for promotion to branch manager. And besides, you know the old saying, "If you want something done, ask a busy person." So Jo would come home from a long day's work, sometimes involving getting terminally ill patients set up on ventilators so they could spend their last days at home with their families. She would make dinner for her family and supervise her daughter's homework. And she would turn on her computer and get started on her own homework. Who needs sleep, huh?

A year later, she's busier than ever. She's graduated from college, but that new job running the whole branch is taking a lot of time. She can handle it. And I predict in a few months, she'll be looking back nostalgically on the fun she had finishing that degree. (Maybe not. :)

Fact is, if you've been working at a job and/or raising a family for a few decades, you have learned to budget your time. You've also learned how to compress work to manageable levels. No returning student ever emails me to complain about all the reading I've assigned. A returning student will assess the assignments, the relative point levels assigned to each, and the specific reading required. And then she'll do exactly as much as she needs to do to get that A, and no more. And she for sure knows better than to antagonize the professor with complaints. Returning students know enough not to whine.

The Lingering Effects of Life

Do you think I'm the only one who has noticed how much experience returning students bring when they re-enter college? Universities have noticed too. Most state universities have something called "CLEP" (credit for life experiences program). It might have a different name, but it has the same purpose, to give returning students college credit for what they've learned from their careers.

For example, I had a student who enrolled in the "EXCL" class (in my university, you take that class so you can apply for up to 30 hours—ten courses—of credit) hoping to get a jump on a major in homeland security studies. This was an online class, and one day he logged in from Afghanistan. He'd been sent there to assess the cybersecurity of the military base, and had to write a report to brief the commander. That is, the commander in chief, also known as the president. Of the United States. That's the sort of experience returning students bring back to college. And fortunately, most colleges recognize this and have some way to offer credit. Those years you're looking back on? They are not "lost decades." They are "found credits."

The Expansiveness of Experience

Mountains of Virgian, Where Alicia Grew Up

Another benefit that just comes from living a life is a wealth of events, emotions, memories, and experiences which create a wider and deeper array of potential topics for the papers, speeches, and presentations students have to make. I once taught at a "typical" college, my own alma mater, in fact, a lovely place with very pretty students just out of high school. They were adorable. However, when I assigned a narrative essay where they were told to write about an experience that changed their lives, they were often perplexed. Most didn't have enough life to have needed a change. So they wrote about "My Spring Break in Daytona Beach." So many wrote about that, I had to ban the topic. I just couldn't bear to read another essay about the trauma of seven girls crammed into a hotel room with only one bathroom, or the temptations of the wet t-shirt contests.

Then I started teaching at the community college, where many of the students were over 40. And what did they have to write about? Oh, "My Father's Last Words." And "What I Learned from Risking Love Again." And "Three Books That Guided Me to Joining the Peace Corps." And "Changing Jobs and Changing Lives." And "Community Theater: My Own Standing Ovation." And "How I Forgave My Daughter One More Time." And "The Pleasures and Perils of Raising Grandchildren." And… well, you get the idea. You HAVE the ideas. Returning students just need to learn to honor the wealth of their own experience. Your own kids might groan at your stories, but trust me, your professor will be so glad that you're writing about something real, something true, something interesting!
Youth is a lovely experience. But most young people have no experience. Returning students do. And no matter what the assignment, they draw on a lifetime's experience to add to or underscore the topic. One of the best papers I ever had came from a woman who, when tasked to write about "an object of importance," wrote about her husband's ugly old Lazyboy chair. He'd brought it to the marriage as his only piece of furniture. She'd always hated it, but she recounted how, early in the marriage, she and her husband used to cuddle in that chair as they watched TV. Later, one or the other would comfort babies in that chair. And then there was the time they grouped all the children in the chair and took a family photo. And… well, you get the idea. By the time she wrote about when they got successful and had money to redecorate and the interior decorator set the Lazyboy out with the trash, I was crying. And boy, was I happy when she admitted she and her husband had dragged the Lazyboy into the garage and hid it until the decorator had left. 
Alicia's backyard in the winter, complete with swans!

Personal experience doesn't mean "it’s all about me." Returning students use their own experience as a jumping-off point for greater education, and sometimes they create new knowledge. For example, another student of mine (a native of Japan) responded to a prompt to write about words with a paper about onomatopoeia (words that sound like their meaning, like "screech") in Japanese, her mother tongue. She didn't just rest on her own knowledge of the language, of course. She did research on the origins of Japanese, the nature of onomatopoeia, and the psychological processes involved in word creation. Okay, she was, by far, the best student I ever had. This essay won just about every prize at our university, earning her enough money to pay her final year's tuition. How old was she? 50. She'd completed a career as a bank teller and raised three children before she decided to explore her interest in linguistics.
I just have to point out that returning student never wail, "I don't have anything to write about!"

It’s Never Too Late If You Start Soon
In fact, this is the best time ever to return to college. Most state universities and community colleges have advisors specially trained to help returning students determine their course requirements, even those students who have three years of courses over three decades and two continents. Most colleges now have some program that assesses college credit for work experience. And many colleges now offer online education to make college possible for people with jobs, families, and/or disabilities.
You've managed to create an impressive life without a college degree. You've raised a family, maybe, or you've surmounted serious obstacles, or you've worked your way up to a great career. You can do college. Trust me. You've got more than enough of the right stuff! And your professors will be grateful for your patience, your strength, your organization, your compassion with other students, and your excitement at the prospect of learning.

Alicia Rasley has taught thousands of students at an elite private college, two state universities, a graduate writing program, a community college, online, and in writing workshops around the US and Canada. She has also raised a family and crafted a writing career, writing novels that have won awards and spent time on the bestseller list.  

Her articles on writing and the Regency period have been widely distributed, and many are collected on her website, She also blogs about writing and editing at  Check out the Amazon page for other Regencies by Rasley.

v  Rakish heroes.
v  Reckless heroines.
v  Elegant stories.

She invites anyone interested in returning to college to email her at for counsel, college suggestions, and encouragement.

Please Welcome Alicia Rasley to Spunky Senior Authors and Talents by Leaving a Comment.


  1. Welcome to Spunky Senior Authors and Talents, Alicia. I'm in agreement that we should never stop learning, no matter what age we are.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Hi Alicia,
    That was a wonderful post. Very informative. I am a great believer in the saying that you are never too old to learn.



    1. No, and never too old to teach either. I think I've learned more from teaching than from learning.

  3. Thanks, Morgan! I have to say, having older students in the classroom makes the class more interesting. The student dynamics shift too. The younger students find it fun (I hope) to have someone their mom's age in their study group!

  4. Margaret, that's the right attitude too-- never too old to learn. None of us knows it all, not yet anyway. :)

  5. You've outdone yourself on this one, Alicia. I just decided I wasn't going to take any more classes because...well, because. It might be different if I could go where you're teaching!

    1. I love to teach writers because they aren't in it for the credits. ("Will this be on the final exam?") It's a different purpose.

    2. That's me-- for some reason I got signed in on my blog.

  6. Great post! I certainly agree with you! The last classes I took were Conversational Spanish, for no grade. I loved it, but others didn't sign up for the next session, so it got cancelled. I bought Rosetta Stone and have been trying to learn myself.

    With 3 kids in college, I work 2 p/t jobs to help them get their first degrees. My husband dreams of a day when he can go back and get the degree he could never afford way back when. I already have my BA in English, so I feel I have to wait now until my kids have their degrees, before I spend anything more on myself.

    My Dad took 30 years to earn his Associates, one class at a time, because he was a carpenter and it was hard physical labor. My Father-in-law retired from the IRS, then took painting classes and poetry classes, and created art that we treasure now that he's gone. A nimble mind never stops learning, and continued learning keeps the mind nimble!

    1. Fiona, so true. I think what maturity brings to the mind is patience and curiosity.

  7. Your post reminds me of the time I read about some 20-something (a movie star maybe, I forget) writing her second autobiography. And I thought, "What?"

    1. This is why so many young people end up writing about their love affairs and heartbreaks. There isn't necessarily enough other life there to explore. But they can go "deeper not wider," but I see that more in older students, who have had time to think about life and not just live it.
      But there's something to be said for just living it! For a time.

  8. Alicia,
    You've inspired me all over again! Everything you've said is so true. Fear is really the only thing holding most of us back. I was so afraid I couldn't do it but someone advised me, just take one class, stick your toe in. And I realized after I wrote my first paper, I can do this.
    Thanks for all the support you gave me and helping me with my APA format. You rock!

    1. Jo, glad you saw this! And really, if you go to grad school, I'm there for the APA.

  9. Even though I still climb mountains in the Himalayas, I can no longer remain in denial about being a senior now that my wife is revealed as a "senior author". But she is a spunky rascal, and we are both still loving and living life.

  10. Such an entertaining post! "Makes me want to start again, again.

    1. I know... it seemed so hard to be in school at 20... but now it would be fun. College is wasted on the young.

  11. Thanks, Jac- I love my returning students. They really do have great stories to tell!


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