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Sloan Center News

Back in School a Second Time

too old to be a student, too young to teach: an interview

12 Februrary 2010

Have you experienced an age disconnect at school?

Having a two year old I can not just be a student. I need to juggle my time between schoolwork and family responsibilities. Often I cannot engage in student activities outside of class. This alone makes me different from many of my peers. I find that there is more of a gap in life stage than chronological age.

Did you think that issues regarding age would be a factor prior to returning to school?

I began with set expectations that my younger classmates would be naïve. I was self-aware of how I phrased my questions and comments, as I did not want to come across as condescending. In reality though, the caliber of students was so high that despite their lack of life experience the younger students offered great insights and ideas.

Has the situation been the same as, better than, or worse than your expectations?

The situation has been far better than I feared. Not only, have I gained a ton of knowledge, I have learned how to better manage my life; I’m much more efficient all-around. … I’ve had to compromise many accolades due to my commitments as a mother, but it has made me more honest with myself and my priorities.

What techniques or attitudes have you adopted to try and manage the age gap?

As you get older you become more comfortable in your own skin. On the rare occasion a student present his or her ideas in an immature manner, I try to think back to where I was (at) that age, both physically, emotionally, and mentally. … School has helped me see that as we move from one stage of life to the next it is critical to be in tune with both the positives and negatives of that particular stage.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you offer others returning to school later in life?

Prior to joining this program, I was warned by several “adult” students that many students in the program were immature and, as a result, classes and group work was frustrating. I have not had this problem, but always pull older prospective students aside and advise them not to join the program if they are hung up about the age gap. I remind them that our age is just a number and we shouldn’t live our life based on what we think is age appropriate.

What needs to be done to put aside age-related issues and make sure employees are evaluated by their competencies instead?

(As) with any form of diversity, it is critical to communicate with people that are different than yourself and get past the stereotypes … Perhaps workplaces can form age diverse teams as a means of sharing different perspectives, or offer brown bag lunch presentations on the topic of age diversity to promote awareness.


a young, new faculty member at an ivy league School: an interview

Have you experienced an age disconnect at work?

Well, I’m probably the youngest person in my department by at least ten years. All new faculty are treated with respect by our colleagues, but due to my significant chronological age difference, many of the older faculty members feel comfortable bossing me around, treating me more like a graduate student. I’ve actually found that it isn’t just age that determines how people treat me but also gender. More often than not either the male professors or male students test my authority.

Did you think that issues regarding age would be a factor prior to taking the position?

I didn’t really know what to expect, but I certainly thought about it enough to plan how I wanted to present myself to my students on the first day of class. I know I look younger than my colleagues, simply by the way I wear my hair or the style of my clothes and, thus, must compensate by acting and dressing professionally.

Has the situation been the same as, better than, or worse than your expectations?

With my colleagues, it was as expected, nothing blatant has been said but there is an understanding that I’m at the bottom of the todem pole. At the same time it is important to bring fresh blood into a department and I serve as I reminder of issues that need to be kept current in the way of research practices, technology, and motivational levels.

With the students, however, perceptions were mixed. Many graduate students were older than me so there were instances of tension when they’d push boundaries trying to call me by my first name. My undergraduates, however, were all freshman so the age gap was large enough that they treated me with outright respect and authority. To them I was old and grouped into the same category as the senior faculty.

What techniques or attitudes have you adopted to try and manage this age gap?

Seeing there is an age gap I have to let my job speak for itself. I simply stick to the facts. For instance, the department is trying to increase enrollment in classes and last semester my classes we all over enrolled. This only reflects positively on me and my teaching and benefits the image of the entire department.

Knowing what you know now what advice would you offer young faculty members in the future?

I would tell them that it is important to have a clear sense of how you want to be perceived as it informs your actions. In other words, if you are committed to coming across as professional, capable, intelligent women then you are more apt to successfully convey this image. But at the end of the day you never know what people are going to say or think about you so you need your actions to back your image.

In your opinion, what needs to be done to put aside these age-related issues and make sure employees are evaluated by their competencies instead?

It is critical to raise awareness on both ends of the spectrum. Specifically, in my discipline, there needs to be a greater willingness among senior colleagues to use their junior colleagues as a resource. All faculty members need to stay current in their teaching methods, the research they are referencing, and the books they are assigning. Only if a more collaborative environment is accomplished can a less rigid sense of hierarchy be achieved.