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Starting over: It's never too late

| Denise Olson

We say it all the time: UW-Eau Claire has an impressive ROI — return on investment — when compared to universities across the Midwest. In other words, when looking at the cost vs. the long-term income earning potential for students seeking a bachelor's degree, the payback is pretty impressive.

But what happens when that "long-term earning potential" is not so high, simply because of your age? What's the ROI for a nontraditional student who has fewer years of earnings to look forward to after graduation? How about returning to school at 35? 45? ... or what about 56? Is it still practical?

That's the question first-year English student Annie Titus faced. Annie, who suffered a work-related injury in her former career, was confronted with the reality of having to start over. At 56, that was a frightening prospect for Annie.

"It's a real blow to the ego, starting over," Titus said. "To lose a comfortable income is very difficult, because for better or worse, we tend to evaluate our importance based on income. I make a nice living so I must be important."

While recovering from surgery to repair her injury, Annie, who considered herself a life-long learner, began reading several books a week. Those books inspired her to begin writing again. She asked the librarian about writing tutors who could help, and was referred to the Literacy Volunteers of the Chippewa Valley. It was through this connection that Annie learned about the Chippewa Valley Book Festival, which sounded like a unique opportunity to listen to local and national authors talk about the writing process. Titus attended the festival and took part in several sessions and completed workshops with UW-Eau Claire English department faculty members B.J. Hollars, Bruce Taylor and Karen Loeb.

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Annie Titus at work in the nontraditional student lounge of McIntyre Library, a spot where she finds herself most inspired to write.

"The workshops were great, and what I learned through the process and the feedback was that I actually could write. I had always liked to write, but that made it seem like a real option to consider as I looked ahead to a new career."

Initially enrolled in the English education program, Titus soon discovered a real passion for rhetoric after taking a course called "The Rhetorics of Science." She was intrigued by the process of taking difficult and complicated scientific concepts and writing about them in ways that are accessible to a wider audience. Annie has recently changed her English major to rhetorics of science, technology and culture.

"Dr. Jack Bushnell's course exposed me to so many concepts I'd never heard of before regarding the language, like ethos and pathos, and how they apply to writing. I soon knew I was going to end up on the nerdy side of English," she said, laughing.

Another concept that soon became clear to Titus was that her elder status on campus and in classrooms had the potential to cut both ways, and she could either embrace it and look for the commonalities with her new "peers," or see herself as beyond needing their input or perspective. What could she gain from their relative lack of life experience?

"I figured out quickly that I didn't have all the answers, that they could offer me new perspectives on all topics and help in topics that challenge me, like math. In a place like this, all life experiences contribute to the conversation — life of all ages," she said.

There is something to be said for surrounding yourself with people for whom all of life's journeys lie ahead. The idea that the time spent here is designed for self-discovery and creating a future is not lost on Annie. "It's catchy," she said. "It rubs off."

As a member of the English Ambassadors student organization, Annie is able to share her youthful enthusiasm about pursuing an English degree with potential students on visit days, along with current students at the Majors Fair. The ambassadors talk with those groups about the degrees available, the full calendar of English department events and the many career paths available. Talking with these young people is one of Annie's favorite roles on campus.

"The best thing about being nontraditional is the unique relationships I've made. Sure, I'm nearer the end of my life and they're all much nearer the beginning, but the conversations are rich."

Annie Titus may be getting more ROI when she graduates at age 61 than her fellow students who will have many more years of income potential. For Annie, calculating ROI involves more than dollars and cents.