HOLYOKE, Mass. -- When Donald Vitkus went back to school, there was no first-day spring in his step, no looking forward to new friends and new ideas. There was dread at the prospect of studying again, and of being thrown in a classroom with students one-third his age.
"It overwhelms me," says Vitkus, who came to Holyoke Community College at age 60, after being laid off from the plant in nearby Springfield where he worked for three decades. "It's forced me to step outside the box I've been in for 30 years. I'm scared and I'm fighting."
Educators say older students who return to community colleges for retraining face vastly different challenges than their younger counterparts. Many already have a sense of failure, and - once at school - must revive long-dormant skills while balancing study, work and family life.
But older students also bring a greater sense of purpose to classes, and a willingness to share their life experiences. Many ask sharper questions, bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the real world, and challenge conventional thinking.
In the classroom and in presentations to student clubs and other groups, Vitkus, pursuing a degree in human services, has drawn on his own traumatic experiences being raised in a state home for the retarded, where both he and his instructors say he never belonged.
One of his teachers, who himself returned to school for retraining at age 48, says Vitkus has taught as much as he has learned.
"Don said the first day, 'I have to tell you quite honestly I have not appreciated social workers in my life, and I have learned to distrust them,"' says Bob Plasse. "Right on the first day of class, we began a dialogue about his life experience with social workers. That gave me, as a teacher of social work, such rich material - to actually have someone who had had such a negative experience."
Vitkus says he has gradually come to feel more comfortable.
But it hasn't been easy. Neither writing nor getting along with younger students came naturally. It was upsetting to be asked to summarize arguments about institutionalization with which he passionately disagreed. Managing his time and navigating the bureaucracy to line up job retraining funds has been frustrating.
"On the assembly line, everything was short and efficient," he says. "Now I have to communicate, get people to open up to me more."
Plasse counts Vitkus a success story. But he says while older students often get the most from the classroom - and add the most to it - they can also have the most trouble getting through. If forced to choose between supporting their families now, and investing in an education for later, most will choose their families.
Plasse calls it a noble choice, but a tragic dilemma.
"I think it's mostly the world outside that gets in the way," he says.