It’s Never too Late to Focus on You

Finishing College 30 Years Later ... and Loving It

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This is my vivid memory. I was a Russian Studies major at the University of Washington in my fifth year. I also was working almost full-time at a Seattle radio station. I lived alone in a studio apartment not very close to the university. I would get off work, usually at 2:00 in the morning, and come back to my little studio. The next morning, I would inevitably lay on my couch and skip class (which I would eventually drop). And, while sleeping and skipping class, I would get voicemails from creditors, escalating in concern about late credit card payments.

To no great surprise, I dropped out of UW. It was lucky I did, as they were about to kick me out. But drop out I did. I, a smart person but a spectacularly poor student who could not wait to start her “real” career in journalism, did exactly what I suppose I always knew I would end up doing: I quit.

I did well, in spite of no completed degree. From radio, I went to Capitol Hill as a Press Secretary. From there, I became a senior executive in the federal government. I ran a PR business for nonprofits. I worked as a Vice President at the largest PR agency in the world and at a number of nonprofits in Seattle. Today, I am the CEO of League of Education Voters in Washington. Yep, I work at a nonprofit that supports people getting their educations. The irony is not lost on me.

And my kids managed to find different paths than their mom. My oldest graduated with honors from St. Lawrence University in New York and works at nonprofit in Colorado (doing communications, like her Mom). Our second one is a senior at Davidson College in North Carolina and an over-achiever, bound for medical school. And the youngest is a freshman at Temple University in Philly, interested in politics. I couldn’t be prouder of them all.

But me? Well, it bothered me – a lot – for 30 years. My story felt unfinished.

So last summer I decided to do something about it. My youngest was packing up for college and I decided to go back to college myself. So I contacted my old school. To no surprise, my old Russian Studies degree is a bit hard to complete online (and I have a job that prevents me taking courses during the day). But they have a new Integrated Social Sciences (ISS) degree that is completely online. Of course, given that there are core courses required within the degree, I will graduate with something like 240 credits (180 are required). And, given I can only really take one or two classes a quarter in tandem with my job, it is going to take me two years. But I signed up. I am back at school. They even accepted many of my old classes, though it was hard to read the grades. (Note to 22 year-old self: transcripts live forever.)

So here I am – a student at University of Washington, studying the Social Sciences and planning to finally graduate next year, when I will be 57 years old. I am studying everything from global food politics to poverty to racism in our educational system. Every week I learn something new that captures my imagination. I actually look forward to learning and find myself wanting to discuss it with my family and friends. And you cannot imagine how excited I am to walk in commencement next year.

I survived my first quarter. Heck, I more than survived. I ended up with a 3.85. Trust me, I was about as far from the Dean’s List as you can imagine 30 years ago.

So here is what I find myself thinking: why do women wait so long? From the moment we give birth, we put our kids before ourselves. We feel a primal need to see them be happy and nurtured, sometimes ignoring what would make us happy. I could have done this long ago, but I was always focused on the family. Why did I carry that burden of my unfinished degree through all the years? It was a horrible feeling that somehow, just maybe, I was actually not smart. Maybe I didn’t have what it took to get a degree. And maybe, just maybe, I didn’t deserve to turn the story around. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough.

So I am changing the narrative. I am finishing my education far, far later than I ever thought I would. And I am enjoying it like I never did before.

And it is about much, much more than just checking a box.

It’s about me. It’s my turn.

Lauri Hennessey is the CEO of the League of Education Voters in Washington. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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