English undergrad Jeni Marinucci

Every new undergrad has to face that first day of classes on campus. But three years ago, it was especially nerve-racking for Jeni Marinucci. The 34-year-old single mom was beginning her English degree at Guelph, and darned if this mature student was going to get caught out asking anyone ─ especially any new frosh almost half her age ─ for directions.

That’s why she showed up two weeks early, just to scope out the buildings and her classes.

Now in her fourth year, she’s found her way around campus just nicely, and now there’s a graduation date looming in 2012. What’s next?

“That’s a scary question,” she says, slightly less scary than having to ultimately confront her thousands of dollars’ worth of student loans. She’s considered applying to teacher’s college. “I think I have less of a plan.”

Still, coming to Guelph has offered the prospect of new beginnings. “University is an atmosphere for discussion, which I needed.” It was also a stop along a road she’d abandoned in her teens.

At 17, Marinucci had quit high school in Milton, Ont., unable to imagine any kind of future from her studies. Get a job, get married, have kids ─ that was what she could see.

She found all of that, but by age 33 she found herself separated from her husband and fearing that she’d spend the rest of her working days in an insurance office. “I didn’t want to die in a cubicle,” she says. “I knew there was more in me to give. What was that?”

A year later she had filled in that missing year at an adult high school and started looking for a university. She’d seen U of G once as a youngster while visiting an uncle who was enrolled here.

Marinucci was accepted at a couple of universities, but Guelph stood out right away for its receptiveness. “When I called, they said, ‘Come in and see us, sit in a class, talk to the English department.’”

She took a full course load in her first year but has cut back to three or four courses in recent semesters. The depth and intensity of the work came as a surprise, not to mention some intensive assignments worth almost half of the course grade, she says.

Now she spends about 10 hours a week on campus. After hours, she juggles duties as the typical homework-harried undergrad and as mom to Sofia, 11, and Nicolas, 6.

Keeping those roles apart can be difficult. Once during a fight with Sofia, she caught herself telling her preteen daughter, “You can’t build an argument based on allegory.”

Mom’s guilt sometimes enters the picture. “Nicolas said: ‘Do you have homework tonight?’” She ended up buying a big hourglass to make sure she gives him his Nicolas time.

The kids have come to a few of her classes. Sofia especially had been curious to see what she was up to during her schoolday. “When I told her there were three Tim Hortons on campus, it was like describing heaven to her.”

Sometimes they absorb bits of the classroom discussion, although not without comical results. On the way home one day, Sofia wondered why they’d been talking about massages in her Chaucer class. Marinucci relates the exchange in that day’s blog entry (Nov. 17).

“We didn’t talk about massages.”

“Yes you did! You even put your hand up and said that he may have been a mass… mass… the guy who gives massages.”

I tried to recall what I had said. Aha!

“A misogynist?”

“Yeah. That’s all you guys talked about. That guy gave massages?”

Dashing home afternooons in her minivan ─ the one plastered with Led Zeppelin stickers ─ leaves Marinucci little time for extracurricular activities or hanging out with classmates. But she knows she’s not alone.

Christine Tavener, 49, is now juggling general studies with her own family in Georgetown. She enrolled at Guelph after sharing her deferred dream with Marinucci at their kids’ gymnastics class. They don’t actually meet on campus, but, says Tavener, “She’s my virtual cheerleader. I know she’s there succeeding, and that’s my best encouragement.”

Despite the gaps in age and experience, Marinucci says her classmates generally regard her as one of them. In a new class, some students have mistaken her for their prof. “If I walk in early, people expect me to walk up to the podium.”

Professors have generally been sympathetic to a single mom’s occasional crises. Once she missed a mid-term when both kids got sick. The prof, who is younger than she is, required her to bring a note from Sofia’s teacher. Another time, she overlooked an exam and found herself verging on hyperbole in an email to her professor. His response: “No problem, come tomorrow.”

On certain topics ─ motherhood, events like 9/11 ─ instructors or other students look to Marinucci for comment. Discussing books and ideas is now her favourite activity. She felt self-conscious in her first year, but that’s gone. “I’m paying thousands of dollars, so if I ask questions that are off topic, too bad.”

That’s what she told the world this fall in Maclean’s. Marinucci had initially approached the magazine to ask about blogging; the editor suggested that she join their new student panel. She’s now one of 20 students from across Canada providing video commentary for the magazine at http://oncampus.macleans.ca/.