If I Knew Then…


Crystal Sexton 1992

Crystal Sexton Poates, Staff Reporter

Returning to college at almost 50 has been exciting and intimidating at the same time. Since coming to IUS in August 2020, my experiences have been full of contradictions and discoveries. Learning fills my days, and before I know it, another semester ends. One more down and one more lies ahead. 


Quite often I ask myself, why am I doing this? I feel as if I have always lived my life for others, not for me. It is officially my turn, my time.  


As a Floyd Central High School student almost 30 years ago, I wanted the same college experiences as most of my friends. I knew what I wanted but did not have the support system to guide me in 1992. My biggest fear was going into debt to obtain a degree. I was unsure of available scholarships, grants, and loans. With a 3.2 GPA from high school, I knew I was smart enough to go to college but too scared to do so. My wage-earning parents could not afford it, especially with my leaving home for college. I lasted just one semester at the University of Southern Indiana. I left Evansville and went home, feeling defeated before I ever really started. I returned to my grocery store job and picked up a second job at United Parcel Service. Both helped me pay off what was spent during that one semester at USI.  


Neither of my parents, who got married as teenagers, had finished high school. But they gave me plenty of love, along with food at the table every night. They were laborers, with jobs such as truck driving and a housekeeping position at a local retirement home. They showed me dedication to their jobs with their loyalty to the companies they worked for. I have the work ethic I do because of them. My husband and I raise our two sons with the same honesty and care. 


Back in the 1990s, my goal was for my second job working part-time for UPS to become full-time, which it did after a year. My 27 year career did not allow me to become the photojournalist, author, or educator that I imagined I would be. During my career, I was a mother to two young, active boys and was a caregiver for each of my parents in the final years of their too-short lives. My mom did not even live to see 62 years. Caring for my mom – my hero in life – but watching her lose her battle to cancer really put life into perspective. 


I lived a life that did not allow me to be who I wanted to be and who I could be. 


Thankfully, so many of my friends, including plenty from high school, had parents who graduated college and held professional occupations. Because of them, I could see that there is life outside of living paycheck to paycheck doing manual labor. If I had more guidance in high school and explored career fields, then I might have followed a different path. 


Returning to college mid-life holds unique obstacles. I have college age kids but am obviously a generation older. Because I do not hold the same interests, conversations with many of my classmates can prove challenging, making it tougher to make friends. I wonder if my younger classmates understand my concerns about their sugary energy drinks. Often, I hear myself giving advice as a mom would do. I stand out in class. I look different. This is what 48 years old means. I do not participate in college activities with college friends—but I am discovering that many of them commute to classes and do not hang around much on campus either. Despite looking like the rare unicorn in the classroom, studies show that I am one of 1.6 million Americans over the age of 40 who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. A few of them are even in my classes, too. 


I know next semester, when I finally obtain my college degree, that I will be crying tears of joy and be proud of 21-year-old me for doing the best I could with what I was given. I know 49-year-old me will be proud that I was not completely derailed from my goal, just taking a so-called scenic route to get there. Growing older provides a clear reflection on the reasons why I returned. And to those who question why you are going back to college after all these years, show them that you are finally taking time for yourself. I did. I proved that believing in myself will provide a sense of accomplishment, pride, and a college degree in my hand.