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CSUN Program Takes the Fear Out of Going Back to College

September 26, 1986|T.W. McGARRY | Times Staff Writer

Some new college students don't worry about acne or sorority bids.

They're more concerned with whether they can make it as students after spending a number of years away from books and term papers and grades, sometimes a quarter of a century or more.

California State University, Northridge calls them "adult re-entry" students. Although the label applies to anyone over 25, most are in their late 30s or 40s, and some are in their 70s.

Because they appear to have become a permanent feature of campus life, the school has set up a program to provide them with information, encouragement and a social life with classmates who won't call them "granny," even if that's what they are.

The common topic of discussion at the semester's first session of "The Adult Re-Entry Resource Program" was fear.

Frightening Experience

"I was ready to kill myself, it was so scary when I began," said Cele Nachimson, 72, of Burbank, a sculptor who began work on a master's degree in studio art at CSUN in 1982 after spending most of her life as a bookkeeper.

"I'm lost," said another woman, who had just enrolled. "I come from a small, rural town where I went to a small, rural community college and this is just sooooo big. I don't know what's going on."

Colleges had long dealt with older men returning to get advanced college degrees. But a different type of influx began in the early and middle 1970s as the women's movement propelled more "mature women" out of the home or unskilled jobs and back to school for a degree, said Ellen Mayer, who runs the support program.

According to a school spokeswoman, the number of older students has been holding steady at 10,000 to 11,000 since 1975.

60% Are Women

Of the school's 29,000 students this semester, about 10,500 are over 25, of whom 60% are women, Mayer said.

In the past, there were "one-shot workshops" and individual counseling sessions, Mayer said, and an adult-student club was formed in the 1970s. But the club's activities waxed and waned according to the energy and interest of the members.

It was not until last year that "The Adult Re-Entry Resource Program," a yearlong series of events, was launched. So far, only a small percentage of adult students have used the program. The turnout last year was about 50.

Mixed with talk of fear at the meeting this week, which drew 14 women and one man, was the talk of parking.

Mostly of the fear of parking.

Or not parking.

"Someone should warn you about the parking situation," said Judy Borstein of Northridge, 42, a former candy store owner who began work this semester on a family counseling degree.

She drew rueful laughter from the veterans.

"I didn't think it was funny at all," she protested. "The first day, I cried," she said, telling how she had spent more than an hour and a half trying to find a parking space on campus.

"Every morning I have a nervous breakdown. My first class is at 10, and if I'm not here by 8:20 I'm not going to make it in time."

"I thought I had everything under control when I paid $33 for a parking permit, and now I learn that's only a license to hunt" for a space, she said.

(The campus has 5,800 student parking spaces, for which 16,500 permits have been issued, according to a university spokeswoman.)

The program was launched last year with $20,000 in money and services provided by the Campus Counseling Center and the University Foundation, which administers money from outside grants and other funds not appropriated by the state legislature.

Financing Is Uncertain

Financial support this year "is still up in the air," Mayer said, but the program is going ahead, with about $12,000 in support from the counseling center, in the hope of attracting more financing.

The program holds support sessions at which older students can compare notes and encourage each other. Lectures are given on topics ranging from financial aid, stress management and internship opportunities to how to use the library. "You'd be amazed at how intimidating a modern college library can be, with banks of computers, like nothing they may have seen before," Mayer said.

"My empathy is with the students," Mayer said, "because on Wednesday night's I'm a student."

She holds a master's degree in psychology and is working on requirements for a certificate in family counseling.

Big Difference in Ages

"People come here really frightened, not at all sure they should be here. Most of their fellow students look like babies to them. Many of them have children older than that.

"It's intimidating to find you're older than the professor."

Traditional college-age students acquire useful tips--how to cope with the maze of registration, instructors to seek out or avoid, program and graduation requirements, changes in the rules--by hanging out with friends, at parties or on dates. Older students, who aren't likely to be invited to a beer bust at the frat house, need a similar "networking" opportunity, Mayer said.

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