Children were everywhere! Toddlers were digging holes in the sand, pre-schoolers were building sand castles, babies were getting their diapers changed, and most of the children were racing out to meet the waves.
As I sat next to my husband in a low-slung canvas chair under a bright orange umbrella enjoying the exquisite beauty of the Jersey Shore, I marveled at how these children are completely fearless and comfortable in this environment. They are comfortable because they have been coming to the beach since before they could remember, and many learned to swim before they could walk.
Being near the ocean during the summer months is as natural to these children as riding bikes in their neighborhood. Being close to the ocean is not natural for me. I was 23 years old before I felt wet sand between my toes. Although I’m a swimmer now, I don’t venture into the ocean to swim, not even close to shore. I sit and I watch.
Students who see college as part of a continuum, a natural progression of what is expected for their educational career, are like these children who grow up going to the beach – or “down the Shore” in New Jersey. By contrast, those who decide to attend college as adult learners may feel more like “watchers,” never quite comfortable in a college environment. Comfort level, however, is just one of the challenges facing adult learners. These learners can feel like outsiders taking a chance on college.
In addition to beautiful beaches, New Jersey also is home to Atlantic City, the Las Vegas of the East Coast. Beaches and casinos! What more can one ask for from a single state? Just for fun, my husband and I drove north to Atlantic City one evening. After relaxing on the beach for hours, I just wanted to be where the action was. I wanted to experience what the advertisements promised. I wanted to try my luck.
Entering the casinos, I could not tell one from the other, either by sound, appearance, or ways to gamble. My eyes were dazzled by the colorful lights; my ears were bombarded by the pings, ringing bells, and R2-D2 sounds of the blinking machines; and I was entranced by the spins of the roulette wheels. It had been a while since I was in a casino not attached to an airport, and as I wandered through eyeing the machines and the people, I definitely felt out of time and place.
I was tentative and hesitant about sitting on one of the stools facing the slot machines. It seemed that these spaces were for real gamblers who knew what they were doing. The spots in front of the machines were not for a fish out of water like me.
When I finally took a position in front of one of the noisy blinking machines, I remembered that the slot machines used to jokingly be called “one-armed bandits.” This time, I didn’t see any machines with one arm. The machines are so technologically advanced, I don’t know if they are even called slot machines any more.
I had to push a “HELP” button to see how to begin playing the machines. The “HELP” button was not much help, so I just put my money in the place for bills and pushed some buttons. The few times in the past when I played the slot machines, I used to be thrilled to see the three cherries straight across because that meant I had won something. I guess these cheap thrills are no longer available. Even when I had three of a kind of something on these machines, it was not enough for me to win. I needed five of a kind or more!
As I looked around at those who appeared to know what they were doing, I knew that the thrill I had hoped to get from being where the action was supposed to be was not real. It was just an illusion for an outsider like me. After feeding the hungry, blinking, groaning monster $7.00, my winnings totaled $0.53. One does not have to be good at math to know that this was not a good return on my money.
Just as the casinos dazzle potential gamblers with how much they could win by playing the games, our colleges and universities spend a lot of money on appealing to the dreams of prospective students. For me, the casino experience was a diversion. For most adult learners, college is no diversion – these learners are motivated by a desire for self-improvement that could potentially change their lives.
Just as I was dazzled by the many lights and sounds, adult learners may be confused by the array of opportunities found on a college’s website. And as I could not tell one casino from another, they might not be able to discern the quality or fit of a particular college. Just as I had no idea how to play the games, adult learners tend not to know how the bureaucratic process of higher education works. Just as I was looking for the one-armed bandits of yesteryear, they may be looking for something that no longer exists.
The “HELP” button on the machine did not enlighten me. I wonder if the service equivalents to the slot machine “HELP” button at colleges and universities are better at meeting the needs of adult learners. Adult learners are putting their money into the game of college and hoping they will get back more than they wagered.