By Jed Bookout
Tyler Dantes has been told that his diet consists of candy, Sprite, and beer. As he sits in his unmade bed petting his calico kitten, he looks at the mess of wrappers, cans, and bottles all around his room.
“I should probably register for classes today,” he says.
I ask him why he doesn’t, and his response is only a grunt as he grabs a pair of pants on the floor. I already know the answer to why he isn’t going to attempt to register for college courses already: Dantes is 24 years old and has never graduated high school.
This is not an isolated incident. Many adults ages 18 and above have either not completed high school or begun taking college courses of any kind. According to the 2000 United States Census, there has been an average of 4 percent or higher for over 50 years of American adults whose education stalled before or after completing their senior years of high school. Students like Dantes have either dropped out of or stopped pursuing their educations for various reasons. Those who decide to begin pursuing an education later on are what is referred to as “returning students.”
Returning students are any adult students who have decided to return to their educations later on. Many returning students who had stalled their educations may have a tough time transitioning back into a full time student status because of prior commitments to employment, family, or even monetary restrictions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2009, students of the age 25 and older accounted for around 40 percent of all college and graduate students. Many older students find themselves drawn to college as a way to find the career they always wanted to work in, but never had the means to before. Some come from bad backgrounds or places of employment they presently find themselves feeling unfulfilled in. John Longstone, a 27-year-old returning student, has personally had immense trouble balancing work and school.
“It’s really tough to tell your full-time job you need a couple hours off in the middle of a few shifts per week,” Longstone says. “Because of the way businesses work, the bottom line is all that matters. Your future doesn’t matter to them.”
Longstone, who requested I use an alias for him when writing this story, graduated from Palmdale High School in the Antelope Valley in 2006 with a 4.0 GPA. He had been offered numerous scholarships to “more colleges than I can remember,” he recalls, but decided to keep his job as a surveyor at the Antelope Valley Mall and keep his schedule open to tour with his heavy metal band.
“I always felt like college would just get in the way,” he says. “After the band broke up, I realized it was the other way around.”
After a rough patch, in which Longstone was transitioning from being a full-time employee at his job to a full-time student as well, Longstone has begun majoring in English at Antelope Valley College and is currently maintaining a 3.9 GPA in his classes.
“It’s a bit cliche, but it was just perseverance,” he says. “I stuck to it, did the damn thing, and here I am.”
Although Dantes was also a musician, his reasoning for dropping out of high school had nothing to do with his musical aspirations. In 2006, when Dantes was only 14 years old, his father died of cancer. Two months later, his mother passed of a heart attack, leaving Dantes and his sisters in charge of taking care of their convalescent grandparents.
“It was rough, but I mean, at least I had my sisters,” Dantes says. “I had to drop out of high school to take care of them because my sisters had full time jobs and didn’t live out here. But you know how that goes, right?”
Returning students find themselves returning to school for various reasons, and will often find themselves despairing over the rising costs of tuition. However, in the state of California, FASFA provides many returning students over the age of 24 that make less than $50,000 a year full benefits to return to school. Tuition that can generally cost up to thousands of dollars for normal aged students can cost as little as $35 for an entire semester, and tuition grants are provided, offering $6,000 or more annually for students eligible for full benefits. For students that need assistance financially while setting aside specific days for school away from work, this is a godsend. These are benefits I am personally taking advantage of.
For reasons parallel to both Dantes and Longstone, this writer had also dropped out of school. Initially, I halted any plans to go to college when I was 18 to go on tour with the band I was in. When I turned 20, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My dad asked me to stop everything I was doing, quit my job, and live at home to help take care of my mother. Two years later, she passed away, and when I was 24, my dad died suddenly, as well. After a period of grieving, I reacted the only way I knew how to and toured with my band every few months for two years.
Upon the dissolution of the band, I realized that, for as therapeutic as the experience had been, it was time to take my life off hold and return to school. In the fall of 2014, I began majoring in journalism at College of the Canyons. It was here that I met Antonio Curiel and Amanda Moulton, two other returning students.
Curiel, 25, is a part time employee at Santa Clarita Valley Television, where he does production work. He initially began taking classes at COC in 2009 as a music major, and took many of his general education classes, but fell behind in his grades due to negligence. Eventually, he became a cook at a Mediterranean restaurant, but the work there was unfulfilling. It was while he worked at this restaurant that he was inspired by the hard work his girlfriend was putting into her own schooling, and decided to start again.
“I didn’t want to be a cook my whole life,” said Curiel. “Watching my girlfriend get an education, I was… not jealous, but I admired her, and I thought, ‘I wish I could do that!’ My expectations going in were that I was frightened, but she really helped me get through that.”
Curiel’s nervous feelings about starting school turned out to be unfounded, as any feelings he may have had about being an older student at COC quickly dissipated as he developed confidence simply through being a student.
“My friends got on a bad path and got into the wrong stuff,” said Curiel. “It wasn’t worth going that way. Seeing younger people succeed, you think wow, when I was 20, I was working as a cook. I could have been here or even transferring to a four year school by now. Being older in school? It’s not a race.”
The 2016 spring semester will be Curiel’s last semester at COC, and will be the first of his family to graduate college. Despite his late start, the proud feelings of his friends and family have been enough to help him get through his last semester so he can eventually transfer to another school.
Amanda Moulton, 24, is an athlete sales manager at AXO Racing and a new media journalism major. Since she was 17 years old, she knew she wanted to work in the field of journalism and like Curiel, her interest in school slipped, and she dropped out of school to work in retail. Not feeling inspired by her work, she returned to school a number of years later. Unlike Curiel, the age gap between her and her peers has taken a mental toll on her.
“A girl in my class is 20, graduating this year, and transferring to SDSU,” said Moulton. “It honestly makes me feel like crap, and makes me question why I didn’t do that.”
A recurring problem amongst many returning students is the feeling that they are being judged because of their age. Longstone, Moulton, and I share feelings together of judgment from other students. Although the feeling of being in your 20s and not even close to done with school can be a bit depressing, the benefits are nearly endless.
“I love the social interactions of school,” Moulton says. “I’ve always loved getting to meet new people, and once you get older, it’s super hard. If I could stay at school forever for just one reason, it would be to stay social.”
“I met most of my friends here,” Longstone says. “A lot of dudes my age, as well as some younger. Most of my other friends have wives and left the state. My friends here are the best friends I have.”
As I share stories with each of these students, I realize that there is absolutely no reason to be concerned about my age in correlation to my position at COC. All of these people are my friends, and all of them share feelings that I have in regards to school. I show the rough draft of this story to Tyler Dantes, and I share countless pieces of information with him that I had to cut from the story for time and space. I tell him my story, and how I didn’t even graduate high school until much later than anticipated because of my parents. I can tell he’s drawn a parallel between his story and mine, as he asks me one last question.
“How much does it cost to get your GED? I really want to get that out of the way.”
“Why now?” I ask him.
“COC sounds pretty cool.”