While a lot of people my age are slowing down and retiring as they hit the half-century mark, I decided to make a career change and go back to school to earn my master’s degree in mental health counseling. Now, at the age of 54, I am proud to say that I am a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern in the state of Texas, currently completing my postgraduate internship hours.

If you are wondering how I decided to become a psychotherapist at this point in my life, I can assure you that it was not an idea that simply plummeted out of the sky and bopped me on the head one day.

Quite the contrary – I have been a therapist-in-training ever since I was a little girl, although I never really knew what that meant at the time. I always knew that I had a caring and compassionate heart and a special gift for helping others, but I did not know how to translate that into a career when I was younger.

Finding Clarity & Seizing Opportunity

As I got older and began to evolve, it finally became crystal clear that psychotherapy was the field I wanted to be in. It was the field where I felt that I could make the greatest impact and find the fulfillment that I had been searching for my whole life. With this epiphany in mind, I was able to begin the first baby step in my long journey down the path to realizing my full potential and my true purpose.

I decided to pursue a career in mental health counseling when I was in my late 30s, but at the time I was working long hours at a job I didn’t like very much so I could support myself financially. Nonetheless, I began attending night classes, but that only lasted two semesters before the stress and pressure of trying to “do it all” became too much. Despite thoroughly enjoying all my courses and maintaining a 4.0 GPA, I dropped out and told myself that I could always go back to school at a later date.

After that short-lived stint in grad school, it was 12 years before a golden opportunity finally presented itself. And when that door of opportunity flung wide open for me, I ran through it like the wind for fear that it would shut on me permanently if I did not run fast enough.

This golden opportunity came in the form of moving back to my hometown to care for my father who had advanced Parkinson’s disease. In addition to giving me the chance to reconnect with my father on a new level, the situation also afforded me the financial freedom to attend graduate school full-time since I was able to live with my father rent-free. With this life change, I found the courage to begin the process of finally moving forward with my career change.

Although I felt I didn’t have a lot of other choices at the time, I knew in my heart that I did not want to continue working jobs that left me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. The thought of wasting my gifts and talents was enough to propel me even further along because I knew I had so much to offer the world. It was time for me to forge a new path in my life.

Now, I am happy to share that since running through that door of opportunity full force a few years ago, I have never once looked back. It was the type of scenario where I had to close my eyes and take a giant leap of faith, even if I didn’t know all the details or have everything figured out right at that moment.

Once I resolved to move forward with my new plans, I was admittedly terrified and trembling in my boots. But I also felt that for the first time in my life, I had finally found my calling. I was energized and knew that I had to make things work somehow and do whatever it took to get this sometimes creaky body back into “school mode”.

Not only that, it was quite daunting knowing that it had been 26 years since I had graduated with my bachelor’s degree. I knew that a lot had changed in that time, but I felt fortunate that, at least this time around, I was going to have a computer at my disposal and not just an electric typewriter for my research papers (I am sure that some of you can relate to this very well).

So with a bounce in my step, I proceeded on my quest of researching a long list of different graduate programs in mental health counseling. I then picked the best program for me and submitted the admission application along with the required documents, all in time to meet the deadline.

Before long, I received notice that I had been accepted into the program of my choice. To me, that confirmed that I was trekking down the right path, on my way to the start of my new career as a psychotherapist. I can still remember thinking, “OMG, is this really happening? Did they really accept me into graduate school? I can’t wait to get started so I can make a positive difference in people’s lives one day.”

Life Experiences Gave Me Skills, Confidence, & Purpose

Once I was enrolled and steadily moving along in my program, I found that I was much more capable than I thought, and more prepared and successful at being a grad student than I had been as an ill-equipped undergrad student.

I attributed much of my success to the fact that with age came maturity, life experience, perseverance, wisdom, confidence, and a total commitment to my studies.

As an undergrad student, I was so young and right out of high school attending a very large university. It was my first time away from the small town where I grew up. All I was really certain of at that stage in my life was that I was finally free from the tight parental reins I was accustomed to and that I wanted to spend all my time with my boyfriend at his fraternity parties. This was not very conducive to my college success at the time. Furthermore, I lived in a constant state of anxiety and confusion because I still did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I had haphazardly chosen a major.

By going back to school later in life, I definitely knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. The anxiety and confusion associated with the lack of focus and purpose I experienced as an undergrad had dissipated as a grad student. And I am happy to report that all of my hard work finally did pay off because I graduated with “high distinction,” maintaining a 4.0 GPA throughout grad school.

I also feel that as an older individual, I recognized the value of a dollar and hard work much more than I had when I was a young person trying to gain my independence. Having an appreciation for that helped to keep me motivated to excel in grad school. I was fully aware of the fact that it was going to cost me loads of money, so I knew I was going to read every word in every textbook and squeeze out every last bit of knowledge and learning that I could manage. I had high hopes of eventually getting a good return on my investment.

My Age Helps Me Stay Motivated

It is also important to note that it was not always a smooth-sailing experience for me. Just like life, there were plenty of twists, turns, bumps, and curves along the road. There were many times that I wanted to turn back and quit, but I didn’t. I would pray and regroup and just keep going one step at a time, building on each little step of success as I moseyed along.

One factor that kept me motivated was the fact that I publicly declared on Facebook that I was in grad school and that one day I would be going after Dr. Phil’s job (yes, I dream BIG sometimes), so the support I received from others along the way helped me tremendously by keeping me accountable to everyone who followed my online posts.

I also knew that I had sacrificed a great deal in life so that I could attend grad school full-time. At my age, I knew I had to get moving quickly since I was going to have to invest so much time in school work, practicums, internships, and all the postgraduate work that would be required for licensure. I had no social life or fraternity parties to attend this time around, which was probably a good thing.

I was also very aware that time was of the essence, which helped keep me motivated as well. Plus, as an older individual, I had a clearer understanding of my mortality. When I was younger, I didn’t have a sense of urgency about most things. I felt that there was still plenty of time left to accomplish my goals. Hitting the half-century mark, however, felt like time was passing by like a fast-moving train that was going to leave me behind if I didn’t jump on while I could.

The View From Here

Fast forwarding to the present – I have now completed graduate school, passed all the required state and national exams, and received my temporary license from the State Board. I have never felt as alive and fulfilled as I do right now, right here, at this age. What I have been able to achieve and accomplish in my early 50s has been much more than I would have ever thought possible as a young adult.

Even though it took me a long time to get to this place, I can honestly say that it was worth all the blood, sweat, and tears that I shed along the way because I know I was meant to do this kind of work.

Things feel right to me now, and there is a contentment deep within me. It’s kind of like when you find all of the missing pieces to your puzzle and it ultimately and beautifully comes together. You feel empowered and accomplished, and you think to yourself, “I did it. I really did it.”

It’s Never Too Late

In closing, I want to stress that it is never too late to invest in yourself by going back to school for a career change, for self-improvement, or for whatever your reason may be.

For me, it was for fulfilling my purpose in life of becoming a psychotherapist. Likewise, it is still possible for you to make your dreams a reality regardless of your age.

If you have ever been on the fence about going back to school later in life, there is no better time like the present to get started. Do what I did and run through that open door if you can, or open a window if you have to. Just get moving! I guarantee that when it’s all said and done, you will be happy that you did.

Norma Jean Salinas
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