A friendly neighborhood elder’s guide to enjoying your program

A friendly neighborhood elder’s guide to enjoying your program

A friendly neighborhood elder’s guide to enjoying your program

When you’re insecure about your creaky knees but excited to be here

November 28, 2023 | Alicia O.

Technology and Policy Program

The second week of classes, I was hanging out with some people in my cohort in the student lounge, when the topic of siblings came up. “Do you have a sibling?”


“Are you the oldest?”

When I shook my head, their eyes widened in shock. By the way I carried myself and what I talked about, my peers who had just graduated with their bachelor’s couldn’t imagine that I was the baby of my family. It wasn’t the first time I had felt the age divide, like when they were bewildered when I complained about seeing the thirtieth engagement proposal on my social media feed or they asked if I could help them rent a car since as someone older than 25 years of age, I didn’t have to pay extra fees. 

However, this reaction rekindled the insecurities I had managed to keep isolated since I applied to programs. Would I find it difficult to connect with other people in my cohort who were born in a different millennium? Was I wasting my dwindling youth in school? Was I a failure for not having a linear professional path?

For those whose inner anxious gremlins have a similar voice, I would like to give a list of reasons from a voice that believes in you:

1. You have been at the light at the end of the tunnel.

It is easy to feel jaded and pessimistic as your younger peers have endless energy to pursue all these extracurricular activities, go to parties, and be excited about their endless professional prospects. 

The truth is that you have a taste of life outside of being a student, and know the difference of the grind between the 9-5 job and maybe having to work overtime versus taking classes and conducting research. This graduate student grind is temporary, and will soon transform into the grind of working in industry or in academia. You have a more informed view on what ideals are realistic and how many obstacles are on the way, as well as what worst case scenarios can happen. When I hear worries about research being defunded or issues with advisors, I empathize as I remember becoming unexpectedly unemployed and trying to work with managers who didn’t understand my strengths.

You also know what paths you didn’t like, which is helpful for deciding what you want to do after graduation. From the internships and jobs that I had, I already have figured out which opportunities would not be good fits, as well as what did work well. When I decided to go back to school, I had identified an industry that I wanted to work in, but it required a graduate degree to qualify for more senior roles in the future. 

Your insights are valuable in making sure your time as a student doesn’t feel like a waste of time, and you can pay it forward by sharing your wisdom with your peers.  

2. No journey is linear.

Life is too unpredictable for it to be realistic for any of your plans to go exactly as you want them to. Your health may take a turn for the worse unexpectedly. You may have had to take time off of school to take care of your family. With how the economy has gone, people have found themselves kicked out of jobs that they had spent hours searching for as their entry into the professional world or had worked in for decades. Personally, I had gotten laid off and let go twice due to unexpected financial troubles of the companies I worked at, all within four years after graduation. I also found myself discontent with the industries I was working in, and the industry I wanted to pivot to requires a graduate degree to rise up the professional ranks. 

While your path may not have gone as you had planned, your younger peers understand this better than you may think. The majority of the newest graduate students have gone to school during a pandemic. The turmoil of the last few years has forced many people to question their status quo. While going back to school may feel like giving up old dreams, it is also opening paths to new ones.

3. You get to experience people’s lucky 10,000 moment (and have some of your own!)

An XKCD cartoon. Follow the link to read text.

(Image credit: XKCD/Randall Munroe)

Some things may seem really obvious to you as an elder, but why miss out on the fun of people discovering it for the first time? It’s easy to dismiss someone’s invitation to their first Japanese barbecue or be annoyed that they didn’t realize they needed a parking permit. However, if you come along, you can almost relive your first time. Even though I had walked through the tunnels a thousand times as a MIT undergrad, to see my peers gape at The Borderline Mural Project and watch the artists in the glass-blowing lab was priceless. I get to tell them the experience of winning the glassblowing lottery my freshman IAP, and how I eventually found my true love in pottery at the MIT Arts Studios. There may also be exciting experiences you may have missed out during your previous time as a student, so make sure to seek out your lucky 10,000 moments. 

Whether it’s the first time you’ve felt an age gap as an older person or you’re used to being the eldest among your peers, it can be easy to feel isolated and insecure. Remember that age is not a curse, but a gift. Congratulations on making the decision to go back to school, and don’t be the person that yells at kids to get off their lawns. Be a friendly neighborhood elder.

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