No Gray Area Here

A look at the older generation of students on the way to achieving their goals at San Diego City College


San Diego City College student Robert Black, 56, works on a Psychology Statistics paper on one of the many computers in the Learning Resource Center on April 30. Photo credit: Mark Elliott

Mark Elliott

“We’re agents of change …”

Anyone riding a San Diego trolley who has seen the plastered-on ad knows that much about San Diego City College students. There is a profile roster of world changers one will meet on the campus. Race isn’t excluded, nor is enthusiasm or specific age group. There are milky white eyes and deep lines visible on a few agents’ faces. There’s certainly no gray area about it. Really look who you’re sitting next to in class — 45 and older have taken over.

They may enter a classroom with visual aid or with the use of a solid cane, but their attention is on that coveted “A,” too. The conflict they face in a time in life people don’t believe they are devloping is Generativity versus Stagnation. Psychologist Erik Erikson coined this term — the big word starting with “G” simply means to a mature student asking the question, “Has my life counted?” It also means asking, “Is what I produce now in this classroom going to prove something to myself?” and “How will I contribute?”

The body fails, memories can take naps and you now really take time to express a thought. It’s facing all that day today or deciding to rot for the students in the seventh stage of personal development.

On those first days of class, they’re just as confused as their younger counterparts examining five or six pages of dense syllabus. On the front, the differences between old and young are as clear as day — yet when it is their turn to introduce, it’s all the same.

It’s for my kids.

It’s for my mom.

It gives me something to do.

It’s because I couldn’t do it then.

It’s to learn about the time we’re living in.

These motivations are universal, full-haired or bald. They are in it for the cause of change, same as the 20-somethings or the newly freed high-schoolers. Time isn’t how much of it you have left; time is what an individual makes of it.

If you ask Nel Mercer, professor of human behavior and member of this age bracket, whether or not students in the 45-and-up stage can “make it” in a modern college course, she will answer in a more articulate way how they “mop the floor with some of their younger peers.”

“I love having mature students in my classes. Mature students, and especially those in their 50s and up. They often tell me at the beginning of the semester that they’re concerned that they won’t be able to handle some aspect of the coursework,” Mercer says. “They tend to be humble about it and genuinely concerned. But my experience has been that mature students — and I’ve had a lot through the years — are nearly always among the very best students in the class. As a rule, mature students come to class prepared, pay attention and participate thoughtfully, and they take advantage of office hours and get feedback on papers long before the deadline.”

It’s funny to think these older students can easily be mistaken as a professor — sitting mostly in the front and having all textbook definitions committed to memory after the second or third class. You won’t hear them complaining about it. In fact, in the coursework of a single class, a student may learn just as much from those aged doppelgangers.

Mercer adds, “I also notice that sometimes younger students start to recognize the strengths of their mature classmates and seek them out as study buddies or just for advice.”

Robert Black, 56, is a study buddy and leader to many. He embodies the professor’s glowing endorsement of his age group. In the span of an 18-minute conversation, Black speaks in all sincere intention of being inspired by all the new he sees in younger students.

To him, college is everything presented on those San Diego Metro ads. He talks of variant culture, the different values a generation holds and the little parts of youth he sees in himself. He is the opposite of a man in the grip of stagnation when he states, “I just don’t like the feeling of going to school and then not doing everything I can do to do the best I can do.”

For a man who can call most of his professors his peers, he never truly removes himself from those classmates he’s graded alongside. He shares the same pit-of-the-stomach ambivalence a student feels the week coming back to class. Once he is there, though, he thrives and loves it all again. A down-to-earth kindness and the work ethic of a baby-boomer is what Black brings to the circle of desks in a study group. Using the leadership skills he honed in his business days, he gets the group talking and adding more to the puzzle, all to get the fullest understanding of the curriculum for the sake of the group’s grade.

“If there is one thing I learned, I can’t say that I have any gleaming knowledge that stands out from anything else; one thing I have learned is to work out as a team and ask for help,” he says. “If I struggle with something, I go directly to the source; sometimes that’s my fellow student and sometimes it’s the professor.”

Asking for help isn’t anything he finds a bit of shame in, and if a man with the experience Black built up asks, “What each cortex of the brain does?” it gets one going toward that end-of-the year “A,” too. And that’s how you contribute — but more than possessing that focus, more than trying to prove something to yourself or fighting that memory fading, college is about passion. Whether that means finding it or having it. Robert Black found his again the second time around when he came back to the land of exams and handwritten notes. The goal he thought up originally was entirely different from what he ended up gravitating toward.

“I came back to school to get a technical skill. I was going into radiology and I figured two years in and out, that I’d be back on the job market. I started taking general ed — took psychology and realized I love psychology. I’m fascinated by human behavior; I have been my entire life,” he says.

After switching focus, it brings him a great sense of pride to say he’ll be attending a four-year university. This semester will be part of a goodbye to City College, as Black heads toward the big “What’s next?”

He doesn’t seem a bit sad to go. There’s a gleam you’ll see in his eye as he talks about the study groups that helped him get here. For a moment, he pauses, and in that pause Black knows that he brought a change in himself and to those peers he studies with.

There will be others in the same position like him ready to replace him in City. Ready to learn again, ready to make a change, and looking for that thing called yourself even at that age. They’re like any good agent. They see ahead.