Education Late in Life


Just this week I was awarded a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University at the tender age of 60.  The most common question I get is, “why did you do it?”  I own my business, so it won’t get me promoted.  There will be no increase in pay.  I just wanted to learn.  That never satisfies the people that ask me why I did it, because if you ask that question you won’t understand the reason.  Education is not about diplomas, certificates, or pay raises.  It is about gaining knowledge.  The certificate or diploma is something that is tangible that shows you worked to get the knowledge.

To be fair, I originally didn’t want the MS.  I wanted to take a course at a local university in structural analysis.  I went to Admissions to see if I could take the course, most schools will let you take a couple of courses without formal admission if you already have a degree.  I was told I could if I could get Department approval. So, I went to the Civil Engineering Department and sought approval. I met with the Dean of Something or the Other, and he told me Admissions was wrong, I would need to be admitted. I went back to Admissions, and they told me HE was wrong, and showed the policy to me in writing in the catalog.  I went back to Civil Engineering, and the Dean of whatever told me both the catalog and Admissions were wrong.

It got worse.  I suggested I could apply for Admission.  He told me “you need a 3.0 GPA.” I told him I although my undergrad GPA was 2.3, Ihad a 3.3 GPA in the MBA program I was in.  He told me “graduate school GPAs don’t count, only undergraduate.  Besides, this course you want is too hard for you. You should just take continuing education courses.”  It went on this way for a while.  It became the most important thing in the world for this guy to keep me out of school ever again. He even called me later on my cell phone to continue telling me why I couldn’t get into his university.  I told him I was busy and hung up on him.

Obviously, I was pretty sore about being treated in such a way.  I was visiting family, and I told my nephew about it. He had just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Software Engineering.  He told me they had a pretty good online program, maybe I could take a course there.  Sure enough, Columbia does have an online program, and you can take some courses without being admitted.  I signed up for the structural analysis course that I was told was too hard for me by the dean of something at the local university.  It was a nightmare since I hadn’t done this type of course work for 30 years, but I passed.  Then I saw that Columbia was offering a course on Wind and Earthquake Design online. Well, I needed that, so I took it.  Then I saw a course in Forensic Engineering, which is what I already do – well, obviously that would be helpful. I took it too.

In the meantime I discovered I was eligible for Veteran’s Benefits under the 9/11 GI Bill because of all the time I had spent being activated by the Reserves. Well, I didn’t want to let those benefits go to waste, so I ended up applying for admission to Columbia, and was accepted.  In what seemed like an instant, I was finished. Now I have a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school because a dean of something at a local university was such a jerk towards me.

Now, going to school later in life in a technical subject is no picnic, and even harder if you do it online. With Columbia’s program, you watch the lectures of the course online, have the same assignments as the rest of the class, and take the same exams as the rest of the class. It’s just like being a student on campus but twice as hard. You can call or e-mail the professor or teaching assistants any questions that you have, which honestly doesn’t work at all.  Not only that, watching a college lecture on a computer is a truly agonizing experience.  You can’t ask questions, and lectures just don’t work well watching them on a 2d screen.  If you a have trouble with an assignment, there really is no way to go see a teaching assistant or the professor unless you travel to New York City, which I did a couple times.  I also went up to New York just to sit in on the classes.

The very worst experience was in a math course I took – Introduction to Dynamical Systems.  This course seemed like it would be interesting, but it is past Differential Equations, which I took over 30 years ago and never used since.  It was an absolute nightmare.  The best experience was my course in Advanced Structural Steel design.  We covered stuff I had already done, but I learned the theory behind the equations in the standards. In the midterm, the class average was a 60, I got a 90.  I was That Guy that blows the class average and screws up the curve for everyone else. My saddest course was in Linear Algebra. I was holding a strong “A”, but I went blank on the final and got a “B”.  I did that repeatedly as an undergraduate by the way.

After that experience, I found out my blanking out on the final was pretty common.  There are all kinds of ways recommended to deal with it – hum to yourself, or somehow provide a distraction.  Well, I got that on another exam.  I was totally blanked out, and was terrified I’d have to send in a blank test.  Then I got an emergency call about a job that something went terribly wrong.  My terror of the exam was superceded by my terror of what was wrong on the project.  As it worked out, about 15 minutes on the phone solved the issue on the project, I went back to the exam, and everything was easy.  I got a good grade, but I’d rather not use that way again to get over the exam terror.

One more story – my very last class I took was a repeat of the analysis course, which was my first course I took.  I wasn’t happy with my grasp of the subject matter, and another course I had signed up for was canceled.  The analysis course is titled “Elastic and Inelastic Analysis”. The first time I took it was under Dr. Christian Meyers, who was probably a couple years older than me.  The professor this time was Dr. Shiho Kawashima.  Doctor Kawashima was named in 2015 as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 List in the science category.  She was an excellent professor, and is the youngest professor I have ever had (I’m not counting part time adjunct professors).  She told me that she believes I am the oldest student she has ever taught, which is pretty cool.

What is it like going to school so late in life? Well, it gives you understanding of the stuff you have experienced.  I found myself totally enthralled with items that I believe went totally over my fellow students’ heads.  The different equations in Advanced Steel Design, the proper format of reports and the way to present evidence in Forensic Engineering, the use of stiffness matrices in Elastic and Inelastic Analysis…  All of these things had real world meaningful applications to me, where to my fellow young students these seemed to be stuff just to be mastered to pass the tests.  On the professional side, extremely complex articles in professional journals and difficult texts are like first grade readers to me now. You can’t put a price on that, and you can’t explain it to people that put a price on education.

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