SENIOR CLASS: Life Experience Enhances Back to School

SENIOR CLASS: Life Experience Enhances Back to School

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Photo: Ron Weese, 50, (shown wearing hat) plans to graduate from Northern New Mexico College this December. (KSFR/Deborah Martinez)

Second of two parts. Click to  hear the Part 2 radio story. Read Part 1 here.  And listen to the Part 1 radio version here.

ESPAÑOLA, N.M.--“You’re never too old to learn, right?” asks Ronald Weese. Later this year he’ll be celebrating his 51st birthday with a new bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He’s earned a 3.6 grade point average, putting him on the Dean’s List at Northern New Mexico College.

“I’m the first one in my family to have a college degree,” he declared. ”That was probably the major motivator of me actually coming back to school so many times. My mother kind of motivated me in that direction. I always felt like -- not really deserved -- but I really wanted a college degree, and persistence paid off, I guess.”

A couple of years ago Weese earned an associate’s degree in engineering and now he’s back. His aptitude for math goes back to his army days in the 1980s, fascinated by computers at the dawn of the high-tech revolution.

Older-Worker Wave Seeking Changes

After the U.S. Army, he worked in construction, and then he and his wife owned a small business. Now he’s joining the wave of Americans ages 50-65, about half of whom are changing jobs, extending their careers or starting new businesses, according the Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research (CRR).

“I did a lot of good things when I was in maintenance and construction, but I feel like I can do better things now because I have a better education and am more sophisticated in the work I can do and accomplish,” Weese said.

He added, “You know, if I help build a building, the people that come to that building would be able to see my work. But this way, if I build a network and it’s on the internet, for example, then it can be reached anywhere in the world; so you have more of a global impact.”

CRR’s recent study on late-career workers noted that more people are remaining on the job longer in order to have a better retirement. Remember the recession of 2008? Lots of people lost their retirement savings when the stock market crashed, leaving many with no choice but to retool, re-enter and remain in the workforce past the usual retirement age. The biggest challenge for Weese after being out of the study routine for so long was time management of his coursework.

“It’s tough, but it’s very rewarding,” he said. “Yeah, I’m getting an education, gaining job skills and have a degree--and I’m gonna make pretty good money. But the actual process of doing homework and getting into the flow and being around younger people, too, is actually quite rewarding. It’s like I’m their uncle or something.”

How does it feel to be a mentor at this stage in his life? “It’s pretty rewarding,” he said. “It was kind of intimidating at first-- it was like, ‘Do I have enough knowledge to share?’ But seeing excitement in kids’ eyes; I mean, who doesn’t like to build robots? I take great pleasure in telling people I’m 50 years old and I play with Lego robots.”

Age Discrimination

Does Weese fear the discrimination older adults sometimes face in the workplace, especially when looking for a job in a new field? He says he keeps a positive attitude about what he brings at 50.

“I also have things to offer, you know, Weese emphasized. “Older people, we bring a lot of experience to the table. I spent three years in the army; I’ve been a dry cleaner, I’ve been in maintenance and construction. I can bring all of those assets to the table with me with a new skill that I learned now that I’ve been going back to school.

As to discrimination, he went on, “I guess it depends on what an employer is looking for. But I think that in an effort of making a good team, maybe a balance, some young and aggressive and some older and experienced might be what some people are looking for.”

Ivan Lopez Hurtado, PhD, is Northern New Mexico College’s academic affairs director. He noted 15 percent of the college’s 1,040 students are over 40, and the school is proud to have people like Weese pursuing a field such as computer engineering, which has a shortage of American workers. Those are the jobs, he said, in which employers tend to be age-, gender- and ethnicity-blind.

Lopez Hurtado said, “Statistically, when you go to the high-demand fields, actually the gap is almost non-existent. Why? Because it’s high-demand. So that’s why for us it’s really important to focus on those programs that are going to increase the opportunities for our students to avoid discrimination.”

Northern encourages its students to apply for scholarships in the STEM fields. That’s science, technology, engineering and math. Thanks to the National Science Foundation, Weese qualified. Not only is his tuition paid for, but he also gets a living stipend.

According to the college’s president, Rick Bailey, Jr., PhD, “In the 21st century I think that we should be conscious of and the college needs to be proactive in what I would call ‘the new trades.’”

Jobs in the "New Trades"

His eyes light up when sharing his enthusiasm for the future of Northern as a feeder college for Los Alamos National Laboratory, where many boomers are retiring. Bailey, who took up Northern’s reins last year, said the Lab is poised to hire thousands of new workers, and the college is ready to provide them.

Bailey continued, “As we are doing our research now -- there are opportunities in things like Cyber Security; and these aren’t PhD’s in computer science. We’re talking about two-year certificate or associate’s programs where students are going in and starting as operators and making $70,000 a year to start.”

He stressed, “The college needs to be a part of that pathway towards new trades. I think in environmental science there’s a lot of new trades that are available, too, and that has to do with helping with environmental cleanup, with renewable energy. There are so many different pathways that I think are going to open doors with new trades and we want to be at the forefront of that.”

Both Bailey and Lopez Hurtado say those certificate and associate’s degree programs are especially appealing to older students who might have families to support or full-time jobs. They want to finish their studies quickly and get back into the workforce.

Back in the classroom Ron Weese listens attentively to his physics professor Steven Cox, PhD, secure in the knowledge that when he graduates in December, he’ll just be hitting his stride.

Deborah Martinez produced this series for KSFR public radio in Santa Fe, N.M., with support from a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund.