Is age just a number? SAIS Europe average age lowest in 24 years

By Zoe Mize

October 7, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — During his welcoming remarks, SAIS Europe Director Michael Plummer, received mixed reactions from incoming students when announcing that the average age of SAIS Europe students for the 2019-2020 academic year is lower than previous years. In fact, this year’s average age of 24 is the lowest recorded in over two decades. 

In a conversation with The SAIS Observer, Director Plummer discussed the implications of this statistic. Dir. Plummer is not convinced that the statistic is particularly meaningful, reminding students that although age may correlate with experience, it is not a causal mechanism. 

According to Dir. Plummer, the relatively low average age of new students to the Bologna campus may have less to do with experience, and more to do with a shift in admissions decisions, as SAIS seeks to grow its Master of Arts in International Affairs (MAIA) program. The program consists of a two-year masters degree based in Bologna at the SAIS Europe campus. Students enrolled in the MAIA program are able to complete one year of the degree at a partnered European institution, making the degree appealing to a greater number of European students. Usually, European students come to SAIS Europe directly after completing their undergraduate degree.

Markus Specht, 23, is a first year Master of Arts student concentrating in International Development. Specht confirms that the European educational system encourages the pursuit of a masters degree directly after completion of an undergraduate degree. Though Specht may not have full-time professional experience, the flexibility of the German educational system afforded him the opportunity to work multiple part-time jobs while taking classes in Berlin, preparing him for the rigorous International Development program at SAIS. Speaking to the advantages of entering graduate school directly following his undergraduate degree, Specht acknowledges, “You’re in the academic mindset, everything is fresh.”

Dir. Plummer also sees an advantage to younger students in the classroom, where youth can provide for a new perspective. He revealed that SAIS is encouraging more Johns Hopkins undergraduate students to spend their junior year abroad at SAIS Europe. 

Natalia Woo, 20, is one such student. While she sees an advantage to studying among older, more experienced peers, she sometimes feels overwhelmed by their career experience. “Especially when [older students] are like, ‘Oh, what do you want to do with your life,’ the conversation ends there, basically,” she says, emphasizing her own lack of professional experience.

Hopkins also offers a dual BA/MA program, allowing students to complete their bachelors and masters degrees in only five years. Although these students may have less professional experience to offer, Ashley Wax, 21, finds that her studies were positively affected. “It’s important to understand how my narrative is just as important to bring to the table as other people around me, even if that might not necessarily reflect my work experience.”

As students settle into the school year, age differences can become more apparent to some. For students older than the average, such statistics can seem jarring. “There is definitely a gap,” says first-year student Hayley Anderson. At 30 years old, Anderson has nine years of professional experience outside the classroom. However, she feels that younger students bring a noticeable eagerness to their classes and to their professional development. As someone with an existing professional network, Anderson recognizes that she can take a more relaxed approach to career opportunities and internships. 

Mandy Bowers, 27, agrees that age and experience can be beneficial to her educational approach. Bowers has worked in a variety of roles in consulting, at the Federal Reserve, and as an English teacher in Xinjiang, China. She is now pursuing a dual MA/MBA with SAIS and Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (INSEAD). “I’ve definitely noticed some advantages, personally. Especially as compared to my undergrad, I feel a lot more focused on knowing what I want to get out of grad school, knowing how much time I need to put into the balance of classes, extracurricular study, research assistant position, whatever. I think I just have a better control on my time now than I did before.”

Dir. Plummer pointed to other factors that, he believes, may be more important than age. In particular, he notes that SAIS is a forum wherein students from diverse backgrounds can gather and learn. The rigorous economic curriculum at SAIS provides a common link between future alumni, who may go on to work in all types of careers, and industries around the world. To him, age is just a number.

Credit: SAIS Registrar, courtesy of Bernadette O’Toole