Back in 2009 I decided to go back to school and finally finish my undergraduate degree. I was 29. I was super excited but also a bit intimidated. This spring, at the age of 36, I finally finished my Master’s degree. I’m what you call a nontraditional student. I’m older. I’m married. I have a kiddo. This all makes the experience of going to school a bit different than when you’re in your 20s and have no one to look after but yourself. Here are a few of the ways I made it work as a nontraditional student juggling school and ‘real life’…
1. I immediately made friends with other non-trad students. During my undergrad I found a small group of ‘older’ students to befriend. We took classes together, traded notes, and even watched each others kids while the other one took exams. During my online master’s program I joined a support Facebook group that proved to be invaluable. It really doesn’t matter who you befriend, just make sure you find someone who keeps you encouraged and knows what it’s like to juggle everything as a spouse/parent, full time employee, and student.
2. I scheduled my homework/study time. When I was younger I had the luxury of studying whenever I wasn’t working. I just had to avoid the temptation to go out with friends. If you’re a parent, you know that luxury doesn’t exist anymore. Sure, by the time I was working on my master’s I was a stay at home mom. You’d think I had all the time in the world to study. Ever try sitting at a computer to write a paper while a toddler is competing for your time and attention? It doesn’t work. I had to schedule my time in the evenings. My husband and I worked it out so that I put several hours on the calendar each week that were my designated school time. Then I treated it like a job. I didn’t miss it- even if I didn’t feel like studying at that time- I made myself do it. And my son got used to the idea that this is ‘mommy’s school time’ and I wasn’t available to him. I think it actually made me more productive.
3. I found my quiet zone. I absolutely could not work at home. I could hear my son whining in the other room and I couldn’t stop myself from going out there to handle family issues during study time. I finally started taking my study time at the library, Barnes and Noble, or local coffee shop. Not only did I get school work done but I got some blessed ‘alone time’ away from the stresses of daily life. Don’t feel guilty about doing this.
4. I created a system for staying organized. Seems as you get older it’s harder to remember deadlines and such. Who knew? I kept a separate planner that was specifically for school stuff. I wrote up specific timelines for completing my work and did everything step by step- no more cramming everything in the night before it was due. I saved everything and backed it up twice both on the cloud and on an external drive.
5. I kept the end goal in sight. When I was younger the end goal was to graduate. What happened after that was totally up in the air because I only had myself to think about. At this point, I have more specific goals that relate to my career and personal life. My degree matters, not just to me, but to my families future stability. When things got hard, I kept all that in mind. I reminded myself that I was building a career that would eventually help our family reach the financial and life goals we had set together.
So that’s a lot of school talk, even though I tried to condense it. I’m actually happy for the chance to be a non-trad student because it’s helped me to become more driven and focused. It also kind of puts things into perspective. It’s hard to take care of a family and focus on something for you- like completing your degree. It constantly made me realize that ‘I can do hard things’ and that it really is never too late. Now I know that I’ve created the mind set to face whatever hurdles may come my way and come out on top.
What hard goals have you accomplished?