Walking through a campus full of sorority handouts, longboards and neon-cased iPhones is a norm most of us come to expect. But there is one population that seems to stand out in a sea of millennials.
Lynn Freeman, 38, a criminal justice student decided to go back to school in 2009.
“Sometimes my age definitely stands out,” Freeman said.
She recalls the first week of school when sororities were handing out flyers and always put a flyer back in the stack when she walked by.
“I should go up and ask them to join,” Freeman laughed.
Freeman said her age helps her in more ways than one. Freeman said she is more inquisitive and willing to participate than the younger generation always on a cell phone.
“I grew up with hippies,” Freeman smiled. “They were creating movements. I was raised to question—why do we do this, why do we do that?”
Freeman was a manager at a bank before the housing market fell and decided to go back to school.
The mother of two, said she has more drive to be a straight-A student, and although it is an “immense” amount of work, it is worth it.
“I think [my daughter] admires that I go back to school,” Freeman said. “[My kids] see how much I’ve put into it.”
Freeman said her children, 11 and 16-years-old, are mostly self-sufficient and can take care of themselves when she is on campus for night classes, but being away is still tough.
“For me, school is different,” she said. “I’m giving up time with my kids. I’m not going to blow it off for a party.”
Regardless of how it may seem in class, students like Freeman are not part of a vast minority.
The National Center for Education Statistics said 3.7 million Americans over the age of 35 attended a “degree-granting institution” in fall 2011. What is most shocking is how close this number is to the 4.17 million students 20 to 21 years old enrolled in fall of the same year.
The number of older students is getting larger, too. The studies also show students ages 35 and up will grow within 100,000 of the 20 to 21-year-old population by 2021.
James Murphy, 31, is a philosophy student who earned two associate degrees at the Los Rios Community College district before attending Sacramento State.
Despite his age, Murphy does not feel any different than students coming straight from high school.
“I look younger than I am,” Murphy said. “I’m not attached to my age—I feel like I’m a kid who can drink.”
The 31-year-old even plays bass and acts as “administration master” for two different bands while juggling schoolwork and his private life.
“I definitely have a lot on my plate,” Murphy said. “But I’m hungry.”
Murphy went to community college—the way many others do—right out of high school, but it wasn’t until four years ago when a snowboarding accident left him with four broken vertebrae that he decided to get more serious about his education.
“That’s like my superhero power I guess—is patience,” Murphy said. “If I didn’t have that, I’d be off some deep end.”
Fall 2014 marks his first semester at Sac State, and he said the university experience is truly awesome.
“I am really enjoying it,” he said. “The resources here are amazing compared to my past scholastic experience. If you need a laptop here they’ve got it.”
It is this hunger for learning that keeps him going through all the hardships.
“I think I’m just a lifetime student of everything, you know,” he said.
Murphy finds interest in everything from philosophy to quantum mechanics, but has a set goal of graduating as soon as possible to meet financial commitments, and he doesn’t have the luxury of taking his time anymore.
“School wasn’t as serious as it is now,” Murphy said. “Like it’s intensely more serious for me because I have other people that are putting all of their trust in me.”
Like so many students, the commitment to learning is the same regardless of age.
To Freeman and Murphy, age really is just a number. They have commitments, hobbies and homework just like the rest of us, and are just as dedicated—if not more—to graduating with that golden diploma in hand.