Back to School: Making Learning a Lifelong Endeavour

By Alexander Fernandez

January 2023 FEATURE
main image

MY MOTHER WAS telling me all about the Saturday baking class that she has started attending – the new recipe that she has added into her repertoire, the occasional gossip with her gang of aunties… Half listening, I was, instead, admiring my mother’s determination and courage to learn a new skill at the age of 57.

There are, in fact, many older adults who have gone back to school at an advanced age to learn new skills, like my mother, or to complete entire degree courses. When I was studying at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) for a Bachelor’s degree in English for Professionals some years ago, one of my coursemates was a 58-year-old lady named Sally Ang. Having graduated, she is currently teaching English part-time at a private school.

For Ang, returning to university was a matter of circumstance as she needed a qualification for a late-stage career change. “I wanted to specialise in teaching English, and having a degree in the field would help me get an upper hand,” Ang says.

Ang has a diploma in banking, and had worked as a banker for approximately 30 years before she decided to quit. She would work late and wake up in the wee hours of the morning to complete her daily report and prep her daughter for school. She worked even on the weekends, performing sales to achieve her KPI. The lack of work-life balance in the industry eventually caught up to her – Ng’s health began deteriorating with back and neck pains on top of being mentally and physically drained.

After quitting, Ang worked with an embassy briefly before pursuing her degree. At the time, she deliberated between a Master’s Degree at Wawasan Open University and a degree at USM. Though Ang has sufficient funds for both, she eventually settled on USM, which offered a special rate for senior citizens, thinking of her daughter whom she continues to support financially.

While pursuing her degree full-time, Ang was also teaching part-time at a tuition centre three to four days a week, each session lasting two to four hours. Add house chores and assignments to that and one wonders how she managed it all – Ang attributes it to plenty of discipline and good time management.

Phi Thak Som Teb, 44, who completed his Bachelor’s degree in Electronics Technology from Wawasan Open University in 2020 echoes Ang on the importance of time management and discipline in juggling work and studies. Concurrently working at First Solar Sdn Bhd in Kulim Hi-Tech as a Specialist Equipment Engineer, Som Teb took six arduous years to complete his part-time degree. But Som Teb, whose degree was a stepping stone to further excel in his line of work, says he has no regrets.

“It was especially hard when I had to perform extra tasks at work, such as maintaining and sustaining equipment. I had to find time in between that to complete my assignments and study for the exam,” Som Teb reminisces. Keeping calm and consistent self-motivation was how he got by.

(Left) Sally Ang (centre). (Right) Phi Tak Som Teb.

Som Teb was lucky to have family, friends, employers as well as classmates who were all very supportive. On the other hand, many of Ang’s relatives and friends discouraged her from pursuing a full-time degree. “They said that I was too old, and that the education system has changed a lot since I was last in school. I told them I didn’t have a choice,” Ang laments. Though demoralised, she persevered.

“The best part of this journey was probably meeting helpful and kind people along the way. Some young people are more receptive to the elderly.” Fellow students would help Ang with technology, from helping her look for a good laptop, teaching her to use the internet and the library system, to providing her with more time to complete group assignments. She was even invited to join their groups, both for schoolwork as well as for leisure, which she remains very thankful for.

It was not all sunshine and rainbows for Ang, however, who found assimilation with her much younger peers challenging. Ang says that she reminded them of their mothers, or even grandmothers, and not always in a good way. “Youths at that age find university to be a time for freedom, away from the supervision of nagging parents,” she explains.  

A number of students also assumed that Ang was uneducated and were not very accepting of her when it came to group work because they were concerned that she would not be able to cope. She recounts an incident where a coursemate she was partnered with switched teams at the very last minute, rendering her without a group. “That was a pretty low point for me... Thankfully, I managed to find other students who were willing to accept me into their group.”

Ang returned to school to start a second career; Som Teb did it to upskill himself and remain competitive. There are also others who do it to challenge themselves intellectually and to stay mentally active, especially after retirement.

Whatever reason it is, lifelong learning can be immensely fulfilling and contribute to personal and professional growth as well as better mental, cognitive and emotional health. While venturing into something new and unfamiliar can be daunting, people like Ang and Som Teb show us that it is never too late.

Alexander Fernandez

is a USM graduate. While most people eat to live, he lives to eat instead.