It’s Never Too Late to Follow your Dreams – How I Embraced my Identity as an “Adult Learner”

Sandra Cooke standing in front of the University of Colorado building"You're too old." "It's too late in your career." "It's not a good investment."  Just over a year ago, I left these hesitations and harsh criticisms behind and I’m now pursuing a M.S. in the Global Energy Management (GEM) program at the University of Colorado School of Business.

At the age of 53, I had toyed with the idea of going back to school for a long time however, I’d kept myself from it by pouring my energy into my career and raising my kids. Now that they’re grown, I've let the idea of graduate school back into my mind.

At the beginning of this journey, I honestly felt a little left behind and frankly, over the hill. After all my personal career successes, I still couldn’t figure my own path.

 If you’re going through the same experience, I want to say you’re not alone. Here is my story of how I overcame my own harsh criticisms and a few tips I found along the way that helped me finally start following my dreams.

1. REALIZE THAT YOU’RE NOT ALONE

Over the years I had often mused about going back for an MBA. I watched so many of my peers do it, so why not me?

My background is in electrical engineering. I knew an MBA would provide me clarity in areas like Jen Walter's Quote "Success is a personal philosophy based on your metrics of victory, not what someone else defines for you. You are the author of your life. Play Priceless."business knowledge and acumen, but no matter how hard I thought about it, a traditional MBA did not feel like the right path for me.

 Anyone who knows me will tell you straight up that I am an analytical nerd by nature. (Give me the laws of physics over the law of supply and demand any day!) So, one night while doing some YouTube bingeing “research,” I stumbled upon “A Woman after 50: A life unleashed.” by journalist Connie Schultz, 55.  I was riveted.

 Connie listed multiple stories of women over fifty going back to school, making courageous decisions and pivoting their careers. I began to think, "So I am not alone with this type of decision and I am not crazy or too old. I finally heard what I needed to hear. I decided then and there to go for it and began the application process to one of my top choices, the University of Colorado.

2. SEEK OUT OTHER WOMEN IN THE ROOM

Before I had the confidence to apply for graduate school and for many years of my career, it was common for me to be the “only woman in the room.” I was unfamiliar with this term until very recently. You can read this New York Times article, Token Woman in the Room, to learn more.

 As the second woman in my company to be promoted to outside sales, I felt confident in my abilities but isolated by my professional peers. I started to yearn for female peers. So, I sought out spaces and conferences where women networked. I soon became aware of the PinkPetro conference, HerWorld supporting women in the energy sector from a colleague at Emerson. I made sure I attended.

In 2018, I was in the audience listening to a fascinating keynote speaker for HerWorld. Jen Welter, an absolute dynamo at a petite 5'2," telling a riveting story of succeeding in a man's world against incredible odds. While she wasn’t a part of our industry, she was the first female to coach in the NFL. She spoke to us about courage and believing in yourself. She was also promoting her book, Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless.

Her talk so impacted me that I did something I have never done before. I got in line to have her autograph her book, so I could talk to her and shake her hand. After that, I felt a long-overdue connection to women who strove to succeed in male-dominated fields. I was so incredibly energized by her words and began to feel more confidence in my capabilities. 

3. FIND A PROGRAM THAT FITS YOU AND NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND

While I was waiting in line during the conference lunch break, I saw the word "Denver" in the corner of my eye at a tabletop vendor booth. Denver holds a special place in my heart as I have very dear family there, so I wanted to check it out.

The sign was promoting the Global Energy Management (GEM) program at the University of Colorado School of Business. I was curious and asked how the program worked. I learned it’s an exciting Master of Science curriculum focused entirely on the business of energy (fossil fuels and alternative energy.) I was certainly intrigued as I got my lunch and began to ponder the idea. It was such a great fit for me. For the first time, instead of fearing that I wasn’t enough, I started to believe that I really could do this. Yeah, the voices telling me "no" were still there, but it was harder to listen to them knowing there was a program out there that I felt like I belonged to.

4. DON’T JOKE ABOUT “LIVING THE DREAM"

The same summer I applied to graduate school I was also celebrating my daughter and her best friend’s first semester of medical school and dental school, respectively. I listened to the girls talk about how hard they anticipated their next chapter and how much stress would be in their lives for the next few years.

Their worries gave me some perspective. No matter what stage of life you’re in, it’s easy to feel like you’re not ready, too busy or uncertain you are making the correct choice with your life. After letting them vent, I jumped in and reminded them that they both wanted to pursue their respective fields since they were five years old. I coached them: You girls are truly living the dream and don't lose sight of that when you're tired and stressed out from studying and exams.

I gave the girls advice I wish someone had told me: Think about how people say they're "living the dream," but they often treat it as a joke. It’s important to never treat your career ambitions like a joke. You want to do everything in your power to ensure you’re living YOUR dream.

The other day during a long commute across Houston, that conversation flashed back in my mind and I smiled feeling proud of the girls in their second year. Then the idea struck me that I too am living the dream!

This is the time of my life when I feel like most people my age pressure themselves into winding down their careers. I feel nothing of the sort. This is one of the most invigorating experiences of my life. I am learning new things about my field and aspects of alternative energy as well as fossil fuels. I get the business side and the technical side. (Remember how I love the laws of physics?) The topics are timely and the curriculum is challenging. I am stretched academically and socially as I connect with other professionals in the energy sector.

 The best part is that my contributions to automation expertise and my understanding of refining and petrochemical capital projects are respected and valued. All my fears about being "too old" were untrue! 

This is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, but I am living my dream in spite of my inner critic and self-limiting beliefs.  I couldn’t have done it without the women who at my age were told “they couldn’t” but decided to do it anyway. They inspire me and give me courage every day.  

Are you struggling with returning to school as an adult learner or have similar experiences? I would love to hear from you! Please reply below to share your experiences or ask questions.