From chemicals to creative writing: A students return to college

Donna Walker said she feels both invisible and highly visible when shes 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 whos older, she said.Sometimes, when theyre doing things like Rush Week or research studies, Im completely ignored.

But, Walker said, her experiences have helped shape her new college path on acampus at which the average student isbetween 18 and 22 years old.

Originally astudent at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and aself-described sciencegeek, Walker firstmajored in chemistry.

Even though sheenjoyed 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 nursingprogram, and went to Our Lady of the Lake Universitys School ofNursing in Baton Rouge,Louisiana. She got her degree and graduated the top of her class.

Soon after, Walker began working in apediatric 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 onemorning she came in to find that all thechildren in thepediatric 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 tonursing and stayed at home with her own kids.

But when herchildren started high school, Walker grew beyond belief bored.

Thats when she said she decided she would go back to school and study something that she wanted.

Ive written all my life, always, she said. I love to write.

Her work has been published innewsletters. Walkerparticularly enjoyed creative nonfiction, but after taking her firstpoetry class, fell in love with it.

Mike Ruso, a form and technique offiction instructor in the English department, said he enjoys having an older student in classbecause of the lifeexperiences they bring to class discussion something hes familiar with, being an olderstudent himself.

Ruso first graduated with a bachelors inpolitical science,traveled for six years, and then went back to school to study creative writing.

From an instructors perspective, he said, teaching older students can be an interesting experience. Sometimes, he said, the role ofauthority is blurredbecause the students have more experience than him. But other times, he said, younger students feel like theyrebeing quizzed in class whereas older students are more likely to say, I dont know, and ask for help.

Like many students, Walker was moreconcerned in herearly college days about the immediate reality of putting food on the table and making rent, than enjoying what she was doing.

The motivatingfactor 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 theclassroom.

I didnt think I would feel so smart, she said. Its like the concepts just catch quickly.