A few years ago, I re-enrolled in university to upgrade my original undergraduate degree received 25 years prior. Having worked in students affairs for a number of years, I felt comfortable interacting with professors and students alike and had no reservations about this decision. In fact, I was exhilarated by the thought of being a student again and looked forward to the opportunity to engage in academic discussions with my peers.
During the first week in one of my courses, the professor asked us to complete an inventory, which requested some basic demographic information. Moving through each section, the professor provided us with additional instructions as he made his way around the classroom. Stopping, the professor suddenly turned his head in my direction and looking directly at me, informed us that we need not fill in the age range on the inventory if we were not comfortable sharing that information.
Although I recognized this comment was made with the best of intentions, I was still taken aback with the suggestion that I should somehow be embarrassed or ashamed about my age. Reflexively, I exclaimed, “I don’t mind sharing that I am 48. There is nothing wrong with that.” It was with that seemingly innocuous transaction that I felt the bitter sting of implicit ageism and my identity suddenly shifted from student to mature student (othered).
Fast forward a couple of years to the present day where I am completing coursework for a master of education degree in the student affairs field of study. I am currently enrolled in an independent study where I am conducting a systematic review of the literature regarding mature students and their experiences with ageism in higher education.
Spoiler alert: while many mature students have similar experiences as I described in my introduction, there seems to be limited research specifically looking at ageism for this student demographic. I am learning that there is much research about ageism in hiring and other HR practices – for example, early retirement packages for faculty – but seldom does it extend to mature students and their experiences in higher education. This is not because ageism does not exist; it just does not seem to be talked about.
My motivation for writing this article is to bring attention to this often overlooked topic and demographic in higher education. As a student affairs professional myself, I understand that many of us entered into this profession because we care about students and genuinely want to help and be a part of someone’s academic journey. I also appreciate that, like my well-intentioned professor above, we may unintentionally perpetuate myths of aging through our actions, words or attitudes. With this in mind, I invite you to review the following:
1. Be a language and attitude role model
Consider that others are always listening. Hearing others quip about their “senior moments” eventually gets internalized for both the speaker and the listener. It is best to challenge these ideas and thoughts now because they only serve to perpetuate stereotypes.
2. Assumptions, no matter how well-intentioned, are rarely well received
It is best to let the student take the lead, deciding for themselves if or how they want to respond to a question about their age demographic, for example.
3. Stereotypes are unhelpful
As I write this, we are deep into a pandemic, rendering most in-person interactions nonviable. Consider that students of any age may struggle with technology and that there are many reasons why they may struggle. Slow internet, software and/or hardware issues, or even access problems are just some of the challenges that we are seeing. These technology challenges are not age dependent, so offer your support to help a student work through their technology issues without making assumptions about their abilities based on their age.
4. Consider all students when developing programing, department policies and materials
Finally, intergenerational education enriches us all, providing us with unique and diverse perspectives. Campuses that cater solely to students of a more traditional age may not only be missing out on benefiting from these perspectives but may also contribute to ageism. I, for one, would love to see advertising and promotional material include intergenerational images, for example, as a natural part of the campus culture.
The main concern with perpetuating age myths and harbouring negative attitudes about age is that they can have a profound negative effect on one’s mental well-being. It has even been found to impact longevity. It is a topic of personal and professional interest and I look forward to completing my systematic review and shedding light on this phenomenon in higher education.
Angel Evans is an MEd student studying at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research interests include compassion fatigue in student affairs as well as investigating how universities can meet the unique needs of mature students.
Wow! I can’t believe how your experience and research interests mirror mine. I spent some of my recent pandemic time at home contacting my local university and trying to interest anyone (i.e., professors, department heads, program leaders, etc.) in a few program ideas that I would love to develop. These ideas took me to program management, digital media, online curriculum design, and the service learning program. All of these contacts were virtually ignored–despite repeated urgings to “please reply.” What surprised me the most in this situation was that I have experience in performing this sort of work as I retired from teaching and program design a few years ago. I also am flexible in my approach as I offered to volunteer my time, take courses, and/or work with other students as part of their course assignments.
So I came upon your article today as a result of acting upon a new idea namely “As we read of new opportunities at the federal level that encourage seniors to return to school via free tuition (especially at the community college level), I wonder if: 1) others have experienced the same sort of no response from colleges that I have (as a retired teacher who still wants to be actively engaged in work) and 2) if so, is some sort of student services program required that targets unique senior needs in returning to college?
I suspect that the chief complaint for me and others is centered on ageism.
Any advice or resource referrals of any such current programs would be appreciated.
Thank you for this article, and for taking this discussion of ageism in higher education forward. Having experienced this very same issue of dreaming about going back to school for a PhD after many years since my master, your experience and approach resonates with me. It’s been a lonely journey.