Back to Graduate School at 50
Our first night at Bennington, my classmates and I gathered in our dormitory common room as if we were 20 years old. In fact, our ages ranged from 25 to 69, with more than a third of us over 50. Our various real-life professions included community organizing, website design, teaching, journalism, psychotherapy and extreme snowboarding, but for the two weeks of this residency--and, on a part-time basis for the next two years--we were all students in Bennington College's MFA writing seminars.
I was determined not only to make the most of my academic investment, but also to enjoy this novel new-old status to the hilt. That first night, Tony, the community organizer, brought out his flute. Caleb, a poet between jobs, fetched his guitar. The rest of us drank wine as they played, and talked about Hemingway and Neruda and Woolf, as well as the novels, poems and memoirs that were to become our graduate theses. We stayed up hours later than we ever would have at home. I felt as if I'd landed in the fountain of youth.
One of the lessons you learn with age is never to court regret. So instead of berating myself for taking so long to go back to school, I'll say that resuming my education at 50 was one of the best decisions of my life. But it did take me 20 years to overcome the excuses I'd employed to stop myself:
I can't spare the time.
It's too expensive.
I can't possibly pass the Graduate Record Exam, the dreaded GRE.
I'd be older than the faculty.
My memory is fading; I'd never be able to keep up with the workload.
I won't fit in.
All these concerns boiled down to one generic assumption: I was too old to return to school.
I also had some tailor-made excuses. As a novelist and nonfiction author published by mainstream presses, I assumed I'd know as much about writing as the professors. And what would I do with an MFA in creative writing at this stage of my career? I'd teach, I thought, since in truth I'd hit a creative dry spell and was starting to think of teaching as an appealing alternative to terminal writer's block. I'd need an MFA for that. But I was still dodging the core issue.
The real reason I finally applied to graduate school was that I felt like a fraud. I'd never studied writing or even much literature in school. I'd been a painting major in college and become a largely self-taught writer only after graduation. My reading habits were haphazard, my critical instincts tentative. This all left a giant hole in my education. At last, in 2003, I began researching programs that would enable me to repair that gap.
It quickly became clear that most of the arguments I'd used to dissuade myself were groundless. I didn't need to stop my life to go back to school. I didn't even need to take the GRE. While many traditional graduate programs require students to enroll full time and attend regular classes on campus, I discovered an alternative option that has been gaining ground with a wide variety of degree programs. It's called "low residency."
Pioneered by Goddard College in the 1960s, the low-residency format combines distance education with intensive on-campus sessions, or residencies, which last from 10 days to two weeks and occur once each semester. These days on campus are packed with workshops, lectures and meetings with faculty and fellow students that build a sense of community. Each student works with an advisor to craft a rigorous study plan and then works individually with the advisor through an exchange of monthly correspondence packets during the rest of the semester.
More than 35 universities now offer low-residency graduate degree programs. Most are master's programs in creative writing, but other disciplines--from business to studio arts--are increasingly adopting this hybrid model. The format is particularly suited to older adults who are motivated by the recession to advance their education but cannot afford to relocate or take time away from family and work to attend a full-time program. Also, low-residency master's programs typically cost at least 30 percent less than traditional programs.
When Liam Rector, the late director of the Bennington Writers Program, called to tell me I'd been accepted, he welcomed me to "the vortex." Almost as soon as I arrived on Bennington's rural Vermont campus, I felt what he meant by that term. Each residency was so concentrated that it took on the quality of an alternate reality. Time simultaneously sped up and slowed down. We were young, middle-aged and retired adults, but of like minds. We spent every waking minute thinking, talking and probing literature, as well as our own creative processes. My faculty advisors proved to be accomplished, award-winning poets and authors who taught me to exercise critical faculties I didn't know I possessed. They and my fellow students introduced me to ways of examining literature that opened new worlds of possibility in my own writing. Together we filled the gaps in each other's education.
The vortex effect is not unique to Bennington. Three years after graduating, I now teach in Goddard College's low-residency MFA in creative writing program in Port Townsend, Washington. I see the same magic taking hold of my students as they argue about theme and structure in the dining hall, or pore over their semester reading list, or dare to read their poems and stories aloud for the first time to fellow writers. The vortex whirls passion, experience, community and insight through the medium of education. In the process, age evaporates. Creativity soars. Possibility becomes limitless.
More Info: Getting into the Vortex
Looking for a low-residency program? Here are a few links to get started:
What to look for in a low-residency writing program.
Browse Goddard College's low-residency programs.
Check Bennington College's writing seminars.