Like many other adults returning to college later in life, for Chris Decker, it was all about timing. He’d just moved to a new city, gotten a more stable position at his company, and finally had ample time to pursue the dreams he’d held onto for more than a decade.
He could finally overcome the negative voices in his head and come to terms with the fact that going back to school at 34 is not only ok, but is actually the new norm. Like 60% of all online students, Decker is older than 30. The doubts and concerns that have plagued him for years start to ease when he thinks about what a fresh start really means. In some ways, it’s different from anything he’s ever done; in other ways, it’s the same situation he found himself in nearly 30 years ago.
“I think it’s no different at 34 than it is at kindergarten,” he said. “It’s a new level of education. I’ll have the same fears jitters now as I did then, and I’ve had to come to terms with that. I wonder, ‘Am I smart enough?’ ‘Can I do it?’ ‘Why couldn’t I do it the first time around?’ I’ve always thought, ‘I’m too old for this.’ But that’s not the case. I’ve thought a lot about what has held me back in the past and why, so hopefully it won’t in the future.”
Decker was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, and now lives in Tucson, Ariz. He works from home as a project coordinator for a technology company, and he feels his new situation allows him more free time and less stress—big pluses when pursuing a degree. But that hasn’t always been the case. After high school, attending college seemed like a far-off goal, let alone completing it.
”I graduated from high school in 1996 and didn’t have the best high school career, grades-wise,” he said. “That made college a bit intimidating. And while my family was super supportive throughout high school, and they would have been had I pursued college right away, I just never saw it as a viable option. I didn’t know a lot of people growing up who had gone on to college after high school. But in the back of my mind, part of me always wanted to go, to experience things and to learn more. I eventually felt I’d mis-stepped by avoiding education.”
Fascinated by acting, television, and film, Decker applied to a continuing education film certificate program at New York University a few years after high school. While he completed every course he started, a family emergency forced him to reassess his priorities, and he decided not to complete the program.
”It made me really think about where I wanted to be,” he said. “I moved back home, and school just couldn’t be an option anymore then. It just went on the back burner.”
Ever since he started dating a medical student a few years ago, his interest in pursuing his own higher education was peaked again. He thought about all the new friends he’d made over the years, and how many of them had earned a degree.
”If they could do it, if they could work hard, I could too,” he said. “Not just to fit in, but to pursue something I want, to really accomplish something.”
After his big move to Arizona in July, he began his school search—this time knowing he’d pursue something he loved, he’d stick with it, and he’d earn his degree. This time, knowing he had the motivation and life experience to do it right.
While he enjoys film and movies, he realized during his time in New York that he wasn’t necessarily passionate enough about it to continue studying it and to be successful in it. What he is truly passionate about is art and design. He spends his free time sketching – his favorite piece is a portrait of singer Lady Gaga – taking photos, painting, and creating comic book characters.
Living in a city that is home to a major university, his first inclination was to look for a degree program he could complete there, in person. But he quickly changed his mind and decided to pursue an online degree rather than an on-campus program.
”Convenience was a huge factor,” he said. “And maybe this sounds bad, but I didn’t want to be distracted by meeting new people, and letting a new city get in the way of what I want to accomplish. Also, I don’t have to ‘be on time’ to class and I think that’s a better fit for me and my lifestyle than an on-site campus. I know myself and how easy it would be to get distracted, and I want to avoid that.”
When he began to narrow down schools, one online program stood out from the beginning: the Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design and Media Arts at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). He was drawn to the many facets of design the degree covers, such as print layout, photography, digital imaging, color theory, and typography.
Known for the wide variety of degree programs it offers – more than 180 online programs total – SNHU appealed to Decker for a lot of reasons including its cost and degree options, but he was particularly fond of its structure.
”A lot of in-person programs I found start in fall and spring,” he said. “I wanted to make this commitment now and get started on it right away. I wanted to start in six weeks rather than in six months.”
That’s pretty much the timeframe Decker is looking at. He was accepted to the program Sept. 12 and begins his first semester Oct. 29. During his first eight-week session, he’ll be taking a full course load of two classes: biology and psychology.
”It’s just so cool to think that by Christmas, I’ll already be one session down,” he said.
That’s not to say he thinks it’ll be easy. He knows there are challenges ahead, but he’s confident that he has and will continue to overcome obstacles. One big one: he hasn’t taken a math or science class since high school, and back then, he struggled.
”Two months ago I took a practice math test and it was exactly what I thought,” he said. “It was like 1996 was calling me back saying, ‘Hey, you still suck at math.’ But it’ll be different this time. 1996 Chris was far too concerned with popularity; 2012 Chris is much more comfortable in his skin, and that will help. Math won’t be easy, but now I have the patience to work through it—back then it was a secondary concern.”
This time around, Decker won’t let anything, not even math, get in his way. He’s not sure what he wants to do once he’s earned his degree – right now, he’s thinking web design – but tries to stay focused on shorter-term goals.
”My goal right now is just to take it one eight-week session at a time, I guess, and keep working full-time,” he said. “This really is the perfect time for me to pursue something that I can be proud of and say, ‘I have a degree. Look what I’ve done.’”
Follow Anna Schumann on Twitter at @ASchumannCMN.