From chemicals to creative writing: A student’s return to college
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2013 23:02
Donna Walker said she feels both invisible and highly visible when she’s on campus.
Walker, a creative writing major, is 54 years old and returned to school 30 years after leaving it.
“Sometimes it feels weird being the only person in class who’s older,” she said. “Sometimes, when they’re doing things like Rush Week or research studies, I’m completely ignored.”
But, Walker said, her experiences have helped shape her new college path on a campus at which the average student is between 18 and 22 years old.
Originally a student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and a self-described science geek, Walker first majored in chemistry.
Even though she enjoyed it, a question that every college freshman ponders eventually surfaced in her mind.
“What am I going to do with this?” she said. “How am I going to make any money with this?”
Knowing she had to make a living, Walker left LSU, which, at the time, lacked a nursing program, and went to Our Lady of the Lake University’s School of Nursing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She got her degree and graduated the top of her class.
Soon after, Walker began working in a pediatric intensive care unit at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.
But she soon realized the job was far more emotionally tolling than she had expected.
The kids she saw were the sickest of the sick, and one morning she came in to find that all the children in the pediatric intensive care unit had died overnight.
“I was good at my job, but it just ripped my guts out,” she said.
After two years, she decided she would never go back to nursing and stayed at home with her own kids.
But when her children started high school, Walker grew “beyond belief bored.”
That’s when she said she decided she would go back to school and study something that she wanted.
“I’ve written all my life, always,” she said. “I love to write.”
Her work has been published in newsletters. Walker particularly enjoyed creative nonfiction, but after taking her first poetry class, “fell in love with it.”
Mike Ruso, a form and technique of fiction instructor in the English department, said he enjoys having an older student in class because of the life experiences they bring to class discussion — something he’s familiar with, being an older student himself.
Ruso first graduated with a bachelor’s in political science, traveled for six years, and then went back to school to study creative writing.
From an instructor’s perspective, he said, teaching older students can be an interesting experience. Sometimes, he said, the role of authority is blurred because the students have more experience than him. But other times, he said, younger students feel like they’re being quizzed in class whereas older students are more likely to say, “I don’t know,” and ask for help.
Like many students, Walker was more concerned in her early college days about the immediate reality of putting food on the table and making rent, than enjoying what she was doing.
“The motivating factor was that I needed cash,” said Walker. She knew she could not make it financially as a poet.
But now, she said, her experience and age guide her in the classroom.
“I didn’t think I would feel so smart,” she said. “It’s like the concepts just catch quickly.”