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Carolyn Hax: How to get started on a degree later in life

Washington Post

Carolyn Hax is away. The following first appeared April 6, 2005.

Dear Carolyn: This may seem ridiculous, especially in one of the most overeducated cities on Earth, but I need help.

I’m 35 and I want to get my undergraduate degree. I attempted college at the usual age and totally bombed out my freshman year. I know there are plenty of schools that have adult education courses; I just don’t know if I start with financing, or with courses, I don’t even know what major I should consider.

Getting my degree will not only help me secure better, higher-paying jobs, but it will make me feel better about myself. So, how do I eat this elephant? – Downtown D.C.

Your goal isn’t ridiculous, it’s admirable. And no elephants need suffer.

But even if it were ridiculous, so what? Not having a degree might hold you back from better jobs, but fearing ridicule will hold you back from jobs and everything else.

The way to get your degree started is to contact admissions offices to ask how you get started, and whom to talk to about adult education and financial aid.

That’s because the way to get anything started is to take a guess, call, ask. (Or guess, type, send.) And if you guessed wrong, then ask whom you should be asking instead. And so on.

In other words, risk ridicule and rejection. If you lack the nerve even to try, consider this. When you recognize that someone is willing to risk looking stupid, how do you see him – as pathetic and stupid, or brave? And if you get ridiculed for making an effort, who’s the jerk – you or person who mocks you?

Dear Carolyn: A friend will be in town next week and will join my husband and me for dinner one night. He’s a great guy, we see him about once a year, but there’s one problem. He constantly is on us to have kids.

He and his wife are 10 years older and have three kids. We’re almost 30 and feel we’re not ready yet. But still we get the baby-pooping jokes.

I’ve outright told him that I’m a selfish person who doesn’t want to complicate my life with children, and that I’d make their lives miserable. He says maternal bonding will erase all those feelings.

I have three friends who have pooh-poohed that theory; they have kids and say it was the biggest mistake of their lives. So my question is this – how to make him stop? – Washington

Better question – how to make people stop having kids they don’t want? How depressing. That’s selfish.

Anyway. You’re responding to this guy’s pressure as if it’s his business whether you have kids. It isn’t, not even close, not even if his comments are just the social equivalent of poking at you with a stick.

So stop explaining yourself and leaving him room for mindless theories. Instead: “You’re a great guy and I love your visits, but our family plans are none of your business.”

If you have prettier words, great, as long as they’re synonymous with “butt out.”

Think of it as doing your small part to thwart the kind of pressure that leads to the kind of mistake that no kid deserves to be.

Email Carolyn at