Starting a Master’s at 58

By Michele Lynn ’82

Illustration of two women in graduation caps facing each other

Last year, in addition to logging countless hours doomscrolling, I used the Internet for a better purpose. Thanks to the magic of social media algorithms, an ad for a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at North Carolina State University made its way to my Instagram feed. The more I learned about this interdisciplinary program, the more I realized that it was the perfect fit — one that allows me to craft my own course of study. I applied, was accepted, and enrolled last May, nearly 40 years after graduating from Barnard.

If, during college, I had looked into a crystal ball that predicted I would enroll in grad school in my late 50s, I would have thought that the crystal was cracked. This was not my plan. I originally started grad school in my 30s but had to withdraw after a semester due to health issues. Once I healed, a baby was the next thing on my agenda. Between parenting and working, grad school fell by the wayside. But I never lost my desire to return to academia.

Barnard helped instill in me a love of learning and the idea that I could achieve my dreams and make an impact. These beliefs guided me as I took this leap, despite knowing that I would be in my 60s when I next wore a mortarboard. I’ll be in my 60s regardless, so why not greet that decade with more knowledge?

Being in school in the 21st century is very different from when I first stepped through the Barnard gates in 1978. The last time I wrote a term paper, my research consisted of perusing the card catalog and then walking through the stacks in the now-demolished Barnard Library in Lehman Hall, sneezing from the dust. I wrote out my paper in longhand and then used my IBM Selectric typewriter (with power return!), eliminating typos with Wite-Out.

To help me learn how to use Google Scholar, Moodle, and other words that hadn’t yet been coined during my college years, I hired my 24-year-old son’s best friend from Vassar College, whose experience in that college’s writing center proved invaluable to me. 

In my first few decades, I was always the youngest in every group. I started Barnard at the age of 16, thanks to a November birthday and skipping second grade. Fast forward to today: Not only am I old enough to be the mom of nearly every classmate, I am older than all of the professors with whom I have studied so far. Last semester, in my history seminar on the civil rights and Black Power movements, we discussed events that had occurred 50 years earlier, just as I had done in the World War II history class I took at Barnard. Fifty years seemed like eons to me when I was an undergraduate, as I’m sure it does for my current classmates. It’s surreal to study “history” that I can recall. 

At Barnard, I rolled out of bed, threw on clothes, and hurried out of Reid or Brooks to make it to class on time. My process is similar these days, although because of the pandemic, I “commute” from my bedroom to home office, attending classes via Zoom in an outfit that generally consists of pajama bottoms and something more professional on top.

But for all the differences between undergrad and graduate school, what still holds true is that learning is a gift and privilege. The interdisciplinary nature of my program allows me to expand my knowledge across a range of subjects. The concentration I have created — communications and social justice — enables me to combine my professional work as a writer with my passion for social change. 

I am not yet sure how I’ll use my degree, but I do know that I love the journey.

Latest IssueSpring 2021