By Erica Getto
As the fall semester approaches, a new crop of Columbia University undergraduates has already embarked on an epic journey: to read Homer’s The Iliad. Annotating Achilles’ and Agamemnon’s adventures is a rite of passage for most Columbia students, who arrive on their first day of Literature Humanities toting already well-thumbed copies of the epic poem. And yet for an increasing number of these students, this epic adventure is not their first.
At the School of General Studies at Columbia University and its peer institutions across the country, adult students are increasingly pursuing liberal arts degrees. As college costs rise, some prospective students have put higher education on hold, taking jobs out of high school and taking to a university setting later on in life. Another percentage of adult students have had personal or professional obligations delay their higher education, including military service or family matters. Still others have sought out creative or athletic opportunities prior to enrolling as an undergraduate.
Among these students, therefore, are world travelers and web entrepreneurs, supermodels and service members, competitive cyclists and classically trained pianists – all of whom, despite their diversity, share at least a one year break in their educational careers and, more importantly, a desire to learn.
These are students like Will Tant, a surfer, model, and philanthropist who, after 15 years of traveling, is now seeking an undergraduate degree at Columbia. Or Barbara Tiye, a percussionist, vocalist and free-lance teaching artist who has toured with the likes of Pete Seeger and Kurt Vonnegut. Having logged hours in the “real world”, these adults students are now exploring the world of academia (and logging plenty of library hours along the way).
According to Carole Aslanian, senior vice president of consulting firm Education Dynamics, roughly 50 percent of all current college undergraduates are over the age of 25. And yet despite age disparities, once classes commence, those adult students studying at Columbia are fully integrated into university life, partaking in the same academic programs as their more traditional peers. Their extensive professional and personal experience simply enhances their pursuits of physics and economics, poetry and European history, informing both their education and that of younger classmates.
Just as Achilles returns to battle after a prolonged hiatus, ready to conquer the Trojans and prove his abilities as a leader, these adults are returning to the classroom with greater conviction than ever, ready to get lost in a book or caught up in a calculus problem – ready to prove their intellectual prowess, no matter their ages.