In coming back to school, Jeffrey Ford sees a second chance
Ford, 55, just started his first year at MU, and he’s just one of many older adults returning to college.
Sep. 25, 2018
The contents of Jeffrey Ford’s room in Galena Hall represent a balancing act most first-year students don’t need to perform.
A uniform from the 307th Engineer Battalion hangs alongside the button-up shirts Ford wears to Missouri Students Association Senate sessions.
His testimonies to Congress, along with the New York Times article he was quoted in, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a computer gaming system, an acoustic guitar and a bass occupy whatever space Ford has in his room.
Ford also said his mother keeps telling him to register as a member of the AARP, but he just wants to focus on college.
Because, at 55 years old, he gave school another try.
Life before MU
Jeffrey Ford is part of a growing trend in the last decade: nontraditional students who attend college.
The National Center for Education Statistics defines a nontraditional student as a “population of adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives.”
Ford said he came to MU more than 20 years after he first attended college. Because of credits he received in 1996 at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, he’s classified as a junior, but is a first-year student at MU majoring in geography.
Ford sees his second chance at college as an opportunity to retrain himself for a modern workplace, something he thinks more people should consider doing.
“STEM isn’t just for kids,we are way behind, technologically speaking and economically speaking,” Ford said. “So I may be the exception now, but I bet you in five or six years I won’t be.”
Ford is also a veteran. He spent time in the Army during Operation Desert Storm as a member of the 307th Engineer Battalion.
He now attends MU as a part of the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, which he said covers his tuition for four years.
Data on nontraditional enrollment shows that Ford isn’t the only person returning to school. As of fall 2015, over 3 million undergraduates over 30 years and older were enrolled in postsecondary education in the U.S., according to the NCES.
Transitioning to college
When Ford arrived at MU, he was looking for the complete college experience.
Ford said he was ready to close on an apartment near East Campus, but switched to a residence hall even though it was farther from his classes.
“I wanted to support the campus community,” Ford said. “I wanted a safe, secure environment that is totally oriented toward student success.”
He moved into Galena Hall in early August, paying out of his own pocket for the room, as the VA only covers his tuition, books and fees.
Ford said he sees cost as a major restraint for people looking to return to college at an older age.
“The cost of college is out of reach not just for 18-year-olds and 20-year-olds but for 40 and 50-year-olds as well,” Ford said. “If I wasn’t here on the VA, I’d be still working at… some crappy job.”
He even makes a point to eat at dining halls and has an established eating schedule: 1839 Kitchen for breakfast, Plaza 900 for lunch and Legacy Grill for dinner.
“When I’m standing in line at [Plaza 900] for a bowl of stir fry, I get a lot of glances,” Ford said.
This is something Ford deals with on a daily basis. He often receives looks while walking to class or eating in dining halls.
“Nobody wants to sit with the old guy, and it sucks,” Ford said. “I’ve never experienced that. I’ve never been different.”
Ford’s feeling of isolation may be common for nontraditional students. According to a January 2018 study from Hanover Research, universities should look to create “adult-friendly campus policies and practices.”
The same research uses the University of Kansas, who hosts a “Nontraditional Student Week” as a model for supporting older students. The website for KU’s Student Involvement and Leadership Center also has a page dedicated to helping nontraditional students.
Ford thinks the support can start with a meal, and he hopes traditional students will be more outgoing with him in the future.
“Maybe next time, instead of giving an odd stare, just give a wave,” Ford said. “If you see me at [Plaza 900], have a seat. We’ll talk about the weather, we’ll talk about MU Football.”
MSA’s oldest Senator
On Sept. 11, Ford was confirmed as an at-large MSA senator. Despite his struggles in transitioning to college, he sees MSA as a way for him to use his differences to help his fellow students.
“It’s enabled me to feel a compassion or an empathy to those underrepresented students,” Ford said. “Those are the things that, at my age, I notice more so than your typical freshman.”
In the past, Ford has worked as the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, which is a non-profit that supports Gulf War veterans. That position led to testimonies in front of Congress to discuss Gulf War illness, a disorder that incorporates many medical issues soldiers experienced after returning from the Gulf War.
Ford said his past experience with advocacy led him to join MSA, and he hopes college students will also advocate for issues they find important.
“I didn’t set out to be the number one advocate for Gulf War veterans, I saw something that was very wrong,” Ford said. “It doesn’t take much, just find a cause. Google something worthwhile. Learn something … and then do something.”
MSA senate speaker Jake Addington says Ford has been attending the Campus Affairs Committee within the senate.
As he looks forward to his time as a senator and his year at MU, Ford said he hopes students will reach out to him for cooperation, because he thinks he has a lot to offer.
“I really want to represent the student body,” Ford said. “That guy that looks a little bit different, that’s the guy to come see about stuff. That’s the guy on your side.”
Edited by Caitlyn Rosen | firstname.lastname@example.org