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Back to the blackboard: Starting over at middle-age

When David Bagley stood in front of his class at Seneca College to lead an aerobics session, he felt like an old dog among pups. At 41, he was more than twice the age of some of his classmates. But by the end of the program, this old dog found that new tricks aren’t so difficult to learn.

For 20 years Bagley worked as a machine operator for the federal government. When his plant closed and he was offered a chance to go back to school to begin a second career, he leapt at the opportunity. Bagley chose to become a personal trainer.

“I wanted to try something new,” Bagley said. “I was interested in it and I was in pretty good shape so I thought it would be a good thing to do.”

Going back to school in middle age can be daunting. For people such as Bagley, it means returning to a routine they left behind decades ago and a strong sense of being out of place.

“I was nervous because most of the (students) were younger than I was,” Bagley said. “It was kind of unnerving for a bit.”

Shirin Khamisa, who runs a career counselling business called Careers By Design, says many times these barriers are self-imposed.

“Someone might have some fears that can be addressed by student services, such as ways of studying or being reluctant to get back into that kind of rigorous learning environment,” Khamisa said. “If you start tuning into what that fear is trying to tell you, you may be then able to look for some practical solutions that can help you.”

For Bagley, going to school the second time actually proved a positive experience.

“I found that I got better marks this time around than I did originally, because I cared more,” Bagley said. “And when you’re older, you tend to pay more attention and you care about your marks.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the marks came easily.

“I struggled with subjects like biology. Most of the kids probably had an experience with it, but I’d never taken it,” Bagley admitted. “Reading and studying was not hard, although anatomy and physiology and biology were tough courses.”

And while Bagley toughed it out, others in a similar position aren’t as excited to return to the classroom. Two years ago, Tina Store lost her job de-greasing metal when her auto-parts factory closed. As a teenager, her Grade 9 education was enough to secure her well-paying factory jobs. But at 50, after 35 years of working with her hands, Store is preparing to start anew.

“I did go out and buy a computer after all these years. For what, I don’t know. It’s still sitting there,” Store said.

For Store, with a limited education and little knowledge of technology, a classroom is a very intimidating place. Again, Khamisa suggested searching inside.

“I think that every person has their own learning styles,” Khamisa said. “So when you choose something you genuinely have an interest in, part of the antidote can be the excitement that you feel about building a skill or learning something new.”

One option is to train for a skilled trade. Felix Gelt of Edulocator.com helps people starting over find a private career college.

“It’s shorter in duration, so the cost is much less and you get a lot of skilled trade options and practical knowledge to go right into the work setting,” Gelt said.

Regardless of the route, Khamisa dismisses the idea that an older person can’t go back to school.

“I think there are a lot of damaging myths that we have as a culture and often times we think that the way we are thinking, even if it’s really limiting, is a realistic way of thinking,” Khamisa said.

If David Bagley is any indication, sometimes school can be better the second time around.

“I think it was my approach to studying – listening and not screwing around and taking it home and being serious about studying,” Bagley said. “I think that when you’re younger you don’t realise how a lot of your future depends on school.”

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