April 16, 2019

KAMBHAMPATY | Babson: Reimagining the Image of Older Students in Higher Education

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Just last week, I found myself going through an email that my mother sent me freshman year of all my old high school essays. As I flipped through the various attachments, cringing at my habitual use of bombastic language, I came across one titled “Babson.” I never wrote anything called “Babson,” I thought. The name didn’t ring a bell other than the college in Massachusetts, but I didn’t apply or even visit the school. I opened the document, and it had no date, name or title.

I didn’t even have to finish reading the first line of broken English to recognize that it was written by my father. It took me until halfway through the first paragraph to understand that it was an application to Babson’s MBA program. My confusion shifted into a different emotion — fear. I knew this document was something I was never meant to read and that it would inevitably stir reflection.

The essay detailed my father’s lifelong desire to attend an MBA program. It talked about family history I had never learned of until then, his few and far between but always relished exposures to business throughout his education, and how he had never had the proper chance to attend business school. When he emigrated to the states from India, he had to deal with several visa issues. Once that was sorted out, he worked a job to get my mother to the states and to support themselves while she was still finishing her medical residency. Then, of course, I came along. Then my little sister. Finally — this was his chance. But I knew very well that my father never attended business school. He had been so close to attending on so many different occasions, and this essay was just another one of those moments.

Being someone who can never just let things go, I immediately texted my father, “How come you never went to business school?” His response included much of what was detailed in the essay. But it ended with, “I think I am just too old now.”

What? I thought. Who on earth said my father was too old to go to business school? The answer to this question isn’t just any one person. It’s our entire youth-centric society. Think of any mainstream portrayal of university life and education. Animal House, The Social Network, This Side of Paradise, headlines like “Going to university is more important than ever for young people.” It’s no wonder that it becomes a culturally hegemonic thought that seeking education is for younger people only. Older people stand out in college.

There are countless issues with higher education, but one I that I believe is experiencing narrative scarcity is how unwelcoming higher education is toward older people and the image of older people in education. When we hear of an older person going to back to school, we laud them, saying “Good for you! How brave.” When we see someone past their 20s in class with us, we turn to each other and ask “So, what’s their story?”

Early educational philosophers theorized education as a facet of life exclusively for children.  In “An Essay concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke claimed that a child’s mind is a blank slate, void of any innate ideas, that is meant to “filled” by experience and education. In his later essay “Some Thoughts concerning Education,” Locke speaks almost exclusively about education as an entity that affects the minds of children. Jean-Jacque Rosseau believed that children are driven by a natural curiosity that pushes them to learn from their environments and should be protected from “the domineering wills of others.” These schools of thought continue to dominate how we treat education today. The notion that education exists only for younger people limits how we define the value of learning. The focus of education was always on the child.  It seems to me like we are throwing away people once they become adults.

My anger and conviction at our society soon turned into guilt. How often do I online shop during lectures, hit snooze and sleep through a discussion section or haphazardly rush through an assignment when I know there are people like my own father dying to have the opportunity to be in this place?

Throughout my life, there was always a disconnect between my parents and me educationally. Their choices were going to school to become either a doctor or an engineer. Though they are both passionate about their work, the primary purpose of their careers was to confer stability and a respectable title.

However, I — raised with a strict regimen of American media consumption, very early exposure to Dead Poet’s Society and the desire to not fit any Indian American stereotype out there — didn’t view my career the same way. My career was going to be my life, something that would lead to self-actualization, something that I could pour my heart and soul into that would make the world a kinder place. My parents’ confusion at my hatred toward my rigid, Catholic prep school was apparent. While they questioned why I wasn’t grateful for the education and attention they would have done anything for in their youth, I wondered why on earth they could send me to a high school that barely had a visual arts program. Throughout college, I felt their subtle nudges to choose a path and follow it. Their cringes when family friends would ask what I study and I would reply “I don’t know yet” even late into sophomore year did not go unnoticed.

Reading my father’s MBA application made me think about the opportunities I had taken away from my parents rather than the ones they had taken away from me. Sure, maybe they didn’t encourage me in the right direction when I really needed it and may have stressed the wrong values for my own personal growth, but I took away an entire lifelong dream and degree for my father. The time and effort required to give me the best childhood and upbringing he could forced him to set aside his primary educational aspiration.

Universities are the places where great ideas are fostered, minds are forwarded, and innovation comes to life. But why are we, for the most part, limiting all this to the youth? Doesn’t more innovation and learning benefit all of society? When we open it up to more people, especially those who feel they can better their lives or fulfill some untapped dream, we aren’t taking it out of the hands of the youth. Education is not a tragedy of the commons type thing. Let’s stop wasting the later years of a person’s life. Let’s use them to accomplish what was left undone.

Anna P. Kambhampaty is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at akambhampaty@cornellsun.com. This Imagined Life runs every other Monday this semester.