Another brand new fall semester is almost upon us. Soon bikes will start shooting out of nowhere, the sidewalks will resemble the crowd at Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve and I will be able to crowd surf down the halls of the engineering building. Fall is exciting, but also a little intimidating. The career and internship advice flyers go back up on the backs of the bathroom doors. The student groups recruit in earnest. Something about fall makes me feel very “non-traditional.”
Most of the goings-on during the school year, and early fall in particular, are very much geared toward the traditional student. Career advice is helpful to everyone, of course, but college career advice tends to be geared toward students who have never had a “real” job before. Student groups fall into two categories: groups that work on engineering challenges together (solar car team, formula team, concrete canoe team, etc.) and groups that focus on networking and camaraderie.
Generally I’m unable to partake in the first category because those teams take a large amount of time and commitment, and while I have commitment, I don’t have time. I do try to partake in the second category. I am a member of the SWE (Society of Women Engineers) chapter at my school and attend their twice monthly meetings. They bring in speakers from various companies to talk about their work and internship possibilities. They also do volunteer work, put together movie nights and host activities to introduce younger girls to the world of engineering. It’s a good group and it’s nice to get together with other female engineering students, as we’re usually quite a minority in our classes.
The thing about student groups though, at least for me, is that I feel like I have to hold back. I feel like an outsider, like I’m trying not to get caught. Caught doing what? Oh I don’t know…being 32 and trying to fit in with my 20-year-old classmates? I’m never sure if I should draw attention to my age just to get it out of the way, or try to socialize normally and just let it come up (as it inevitably does) in conversation when it becomes obvious that the workings of my day-to-day life are quite a bit different than theirs.
I don’t know why this feels like such a big deal to me. My classmates probably don’t even care. But I somehow feel like I’m being deceitful letting them believe that I’m “one of them” when, in reality, they’re risking becoming friends with a 32-year-old chick who goes to bed at 10:30 after having a small glass of red wine and reading her book club book. Yawn.
The truth is, I don’t quite know where I fit. I’m living in this strange limbo world between life stages. I’m an adult and have been for quite some time, but I’m not married and I don’t have children. I have a lot of the same freedoms that my classmates have (and I greatly value those freedoms, lest you pity me for being single and childfree – don’t – I love it), but I’ve moved beyond the place they are in their lives. I am not interested in going out drinking and dancing until 3 a.m. I’m done living in apartments where my neighbors play loud music all night and urinate in the hallway (yes, this happened…my parents witnessed it). I don’t even know how to make Ramen noodles.
At the same time, I’m not anchored to another life stage either. Most of my friends are married and most of those who are married are having kids. If I fell into that category, this confusion about whether or not I fit in with my classmates would probably not even cross my mind. There would be a clear division between me and them and I’d be too busy taking care of my marriage and kids to worry about it. But I’m not in that category and I won’t be any time soon.
Sure, I think a SWE movie night sounds fun. I’d love to get to know my fellow engineering girls better. But is it weird to show up at a student apartment with a bunch of 20-year-old girls to watch a movie? I suppose not. But it feels weird if I haven’t come clean about who I am. I’d feel like an undercover cop or something.
Most likely I should just get over this. The age difference isn’t that great, and there are probably college girls who go to bed at 10:30 and are happy to do it. Being female engineering students, we probably have more in common than not. But something always holds me back. As intense as going back to school has been, I’ve always felt like I’m just sampling this student life. I’ve done this before and I can’t do it again, not really. I’m dipping my toes back in, but not taking the plunge.
I’m really enjoying the school thing. It’s been interesting and challenging and new, but I’m going to be happy to get back to having a singular focus, and to know where I fit. The professional world is filled with people of all ages and personalities. It’s not about life stages, it’s about common goals. I’ve made lots of great friends in my professional life, some older, some younger, and I’m looking forward to making more in the future, out of school, where I don’t feel like an undercover cop.