UNIVERSITY AT 50….


When I finished high school at eighteen, I went to work full-time. Three years later I was telling people that I thought I’d work some more and then maybe go back to school. I remember one co-worker telling me that once I was in for five years, I’d be in for life. Well, thirty years later, here I am at Laurentian. There is a lot to be said about working for a couple of years before university – but thirty years! Maybe that is pushing things.

I am a so-called mature student at fifty and in all my working years I have never felt that I fit in as well as I feel I do now. For the first month or so in my first year, I kept shaking my head thinking, Man! I’m like thirty years older than everyone else. I got involved in a club at Huntington, and I soon learned I was the one with a hang-up about age. I suppose I am the poster boy of what it means to be on the other side of middle age. I don’t purport to have any more wisdom or experience than anyone else I meet on campus. After some thought, I have decided that if my life experience has allowed me some kind of insight, it is that I am aware of my shortcomings and more importantly, I am accepting of who I am – warts and all.

I went to work in 1974 – a time that seems like it belongs to another world. I was shaped, in large part, by the positivism of the 1960’s and 70’s. Technology and democracy – particularly a democracy shaped by the recognition of left-of-centre values – were going to liberate people from poverty, drudgery and human rights abuses. In short, the world would be more egalitarian.

The Cold War held a so-called balance of terror which contained the excesses of men like – oh, say George Bush. The Cold War has not been adequately studied yet because we are still living in its shadow, but suffice to say for now that that time represents a special kind of insanity because it seemed so normal to live under the “nuclear umbrella”. All in all, and discounting the threat of thermonuclear annihilation, (yeah, I’m being wry with a touch of ironic silliness), it was a time of optimism for the future and in our ability as humans to manage our technology to create a better world – after all, we had landed on the moon without blowing anyone up!

So, more about me. I grew up as an average kid in a Northern Ontario city – Sudbury. It was possible to go from an average grade in high school to a full time job. I started work at Bell Canada. From transport drivers to telephone installers; from storeroom attendants to operators; and from linemen to floor cleaners, we were all Bell employees first, and of course, there was an unwritten hierarchy as to who was more valuable. If I had to describe the culture at Bell, I would call it a people culture. Whatever new technology was implemented, people – technicians and clerical staff with years of experience – could shape the processes making the changes work.

I went from several occupations in Bell without any real life plan, changing jobs as my interests changed. I learned a lot and I am still amazed because, by nature, I am NOT technically inclined. For the last sixteen years I was a Cable Repairman which is really a jack-of-all trade. Everyday could be quite different from the last; out on a rural road in a snowstorm one day, and in a manhole (confined space) downtown the next. During the 1990’s, I awoke to the world around me, and while that may make me a slow learner, I sure made up for ‘lost time.’

Technological change promised a new way of doing business and Bell executives became seduced around creating a communications conglomerate from Mexico to Canada. The old culture was destroyed and there was no input from employees as to how change could be implemented. I became involved with the union and was president of the local for three years during a lot of tumultuous change. I became energized, radicalized and driven to do something to answer back to a world increasingly preoccupied with profit and power.

I wrote a column for Northern Life newspaper from 1995 to 1997. I ran for the NDP in 1999 provincially; and in 2000, federally. Whatever I was in 1974, I had leapt into the new world with both feet, not grounded spiritually or mentally. I burned out and just accepted that I would be working in a place which itself was culturally turned inside out.

Most significantly, I learned about myself and consequently asked a lot of questions such as; can I stay here and be happy? What if I had gone on in school? I had always read and thought about what I had read. I had written about what I thought, and was published locally. In 2004, as the yearning for meaning in my life grew stronger, and as if by divine providence, Bell was further inclined to cut its payroll. The company offered a package designed to lure those with thirty-plus years to take an early retirement. Most that took it were in their mid-fifties and were already planning to go in a few years. But I was forty-nine. I had young children; I was divorced with child-care payments, so how could I ever take this? It was decision time – stay for another ten or fifteen years and then what; or take this package, go to university and find real meaning in my life.

So here I am, in the second semester of my second year at Laurentian. You’ll know me by the goofy smile on my face because I absolutely thrive here at Laurentian. My experience here is a gift, because it is a second chance. I do well academically, I work in the Writing Assistance office and I am a peer tutor. I am intent on taking in as much of the university experience as I can. Second chances don’t come along very often, but they do come and all one has to do is answer the call. Having less money is scary and so, I am able to relate to other students who are facing huge loans and have scarce funds themselves.

When I look around at all of my fellow students, I sometimes wonder, in twenty years, when I am seventy(!), how you will all be doing and if you will have been able to realize your dreams and are making the world a better place. Those of you I have met are light years ahead of me when I was twenty or so.

If I could presume to offer any advice it’s this: don’t worry too much, and believe it or not, you have more time than you may think. The professors are gifts in their knowledge and commitment. Above all, I know it’s never too late; that age is just a number and mistakes in life are doors to second chances. See you in class!

Paul Chislett is a Communication Studies student at Laurentian. pchislett@sympatico.ca

This article originally appeared in “Lambda”, Laurentian University’s Student Newspaper(not online)

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Filed under Baby Boomers, Life Long Learning, Second Chances, University Life

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