Back on Campus to Experience Road Not Taken

Richard Hendrix '14 in The New York Times, March 18, 2013

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By ROBERT STRAUSS

ADITI ROY wasn’t looking to become an entrepreneur or head to Wall Street or move up the corporate totem pole like most of her compatriots in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School executive M.B.A. program. She was the morning news anchor for WCAU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, and already had a stint as West Coast correspondent for the network.

“I was definitely the outlier in that class. Those people already had amazing business minds,” Ms. Roy said.

“But I had reached a point where I was craving a different type of intellectual stimulation,” she said. “While writing a story and combining video and narrative can be a great intellectual exercise, earlier on in school I loved numbers and math, so this had been part of my mind that had been dormant.”

In recent years, the array of college courses to attract nontraditional or not-fresh-out-of-college students has been enhanced. Yet they still seem to be divided between the kind that Ms. Roy termed “intellectual stimulation” and those that offer at least some version of career enhancement. Professional schools — law, business and the like — are not traditionally thought of as places where students go for the joy of it, as they might if studying English literature or the history of the Italian Renaissance.

“We do ask everyone who applies, What are you doing this for?” said Catherine Molony, the director of the Wharton program, noting that “not a lot” of people take the course for the love of learning alone. “But there are people who do say that the world is changing around them and that business is a part of that. Even if they are in their 50s or 60s, they say they want to be ready for the challenges life can throw them.”

James Pappas, the executive vice president of the Association for Continuing Higher Education, which is based at the University of Oklahoma, said, “I would be surprised if the number on a national basis were more than 2 percent of students who come back later to take Ph.D.’s or the like.”

“But I am not aware of any instance where someone says, ‘Oh, my gosh, why are they coming back?’ There is an excitement about it. They are often the most exciting figures in the classroom,” he said. “The young 22-year-old who is in a program doesn’t have the basis of experience to vet what they are learning. There is no prejudice against older students, but an embracing of them.”

“At Wharton, I knew it would have some depth,” said Ms. Roy, who already has a master’s degree in political science from Stanford and another, in journalism, from Columbia. “I don’t know exactly how I will use it, but it was among the most enlightening things I have done. Once you get past your 30s as a woman on TV, you never know what you are going to have to do.”

Richard Hendrix had long had an interest in studying law — even as an English professor and then an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania and New Jersey City University. Two years ago, at 68, he entered the first-year law class at Fordham, composed mostly of recent college graduates.

“It was the road not taken,” Mr. Hendrix said. “I went through school during the Kennedy years, and the high calling was public service, so I figured on either academics or law, and I chose academics. I am now doing the other road.”

He has been inspired by this to try, when he is done next year, to get public-interest law work.

“I just don’t want to retire, and I can now do that same public service path I might have taken when I was young,” he said.

Dave Frankel faced a similar choice, but when a bit younger. Like Ms. Roy, he was in television news in Philadelphia, as a weatherman. His negotiations for a new contract in 2003 did not go well and, at 46, he started freelancing for ESPN.

“It wasn’t like I couldn’t make a living, but I always thought studying law might be interesting, even if I never would practice,” Mr. Frankel said. He went to Villanova Law School, mostly with students half his age, and became, he said, even more excited about the subject matter than they.

He thought he would go into entertainment law, given his TV background, but a colleague convinced him that he would better serve public interest as an advocate for special education needs.

“I think the best part of this is that now people see me in this advocate and academic role, not just as Dave Frankel, a weatherman,” he said.

John Kotruch said he loved history as a child, but he went into the military, and, afterward, became a commercial pilot.

A longing for academia gnawed at him, though. Stationed out of Boston and living in New Hampshire, he applied to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire.

“Here I was, going to be in my 50s, doing all that stuff you have to do to get a Ph.D.,” he said. “Most everyone else in the program is there to be a college professor, but that doesn’t bother me. As challenging as it is, I am just happy I decided to do it.”

Elizabeth Barnum went to even greater lengths. She had been a writer and a political activist in Minneapolis for nearly 40 years, but wanted to try something new. She had always been fascinated with literature, so she applied to graduate programs and got accepted at the University of North Dakota.

“I did the reverse college thing,” she said. “My sons packed me up and drove me to Grand Forks, settled me in my apartment, gave me a kiss and left.” Ms. Barnum, 61, now three years into the Ph.D. work with about 18 months more to go, is almost incredulous that she has done it, but happy that she has.

She thinks she will go back to Minneapolis when she is finished, she said, and although she knows there is unlikely to be any tenure-track position for a Henry James scholar in her 60s, she will try to teach somewhere.

“I think mostly I will be happy that I accomplished something not that many people would try,” she said. “I think James would be proud of me for that, too.”