The recent pandemic caused many people to reevaluate their lives and make needed changes. Like many, I decided it was time for a career shift — which meant earning a degree. Going back to school as an adult and parent was an eye-opening experience, to be sure.
However, my journey had far more joys than it did hardships and provided me with the satisfaction that, yes, I could do it. So can you. Here’s what I learned going back to school.
1. Keep Your Expectations Realistic
One difference between my younger student peers that immediately shocked me was how idealistic my classmates seemed. It made me feel a bit jaded until I read a statistic that made me reassess my perception of myself as simply realistic. Many college students overestimate their post-graduate earning potential by as much as 88%, envisioning 6-figure salaries when the average is just over $55,000.
Many of my student colleagues likewise thought they could slide by with easy grades as they did in high school — but college entails a lot of hard work. Far too many students enroll in university because it seems like “the thing to do.” They fail to do the hard work of evaluating their financial means versus the likely reward and the realistic amount of time they need for studying and other activities.
As a result, many of my classmates grew frustrated and some left school. The number one lesson I learned going back to school is that you need a plan. Higher education is a significant investment in your future, which can straddle you with student loan debt for years — and you should evaluate all the factors instead of acting on a whim.
2. Organization Is a Must
Making time for your demanding college study schedule is tough enough. Juggling work and child-raising while you hit the books is a balancing act worthy of a circus performer.
My planner became my shadow when I went back to school. Each semester, I began by charting vital due dates. Then, I sat down each Sunday night to plan my week, including time for cooking dinner, taking my kids to soccer practice and hitting the books. I used my process as a teachable moment to encourage my children to get organized, keeping them on track of their homework assignments while I did the same.
If you’re a mom, I can’t recommend this method enough. It’s fun to plan your week with your children and keep on top of what each other is doing, helping you bond despite your busy schedule.
3. Overcoming Fear Is Half the Battle
If you’re still on the fence about going back to school, spend some time in mindfulness. Is fear one of the reasons you hesitate? You might question your ability to do the work or whether you can master online learning technology.
One lesson I learned going back to school is that you can’t let fear hold you back from the future you want. For example, you might fantasize about donning scrubs every day and going to work as a radiology technician. There’s no roundabout route — if you want the dream, you need the degree.
You might have to do some uncomfortable things on your educational journey. I will never count that requisite speech class among my favorites, but I did get more comfortable addressing a group, a skill that will help in my future career.
4. You’ll Need to Enlist the Troops
I absolutely love Arnold Schwartzenegger’s recent commencement speech about the myth of the self-made man. He’s spot-on in his assessment — none of us get to where we are in life alone. One thing I learned going back to school is that you have to rally the troops.
For example, you’ll need to get the kids on board for quiet study time. Can you coordinate a time where you work together, perhaps sitting down to work after a romp in the park to burn off extra energy? If you have a partner, talk about your added responsibilities and develop a fair chore schedule. Have your parents or in-laws been begging for more time with the littles? Honey, sometimes packing their bags and sending them to grandma’s house is the only way to write that essay before Monday.
5. Self-Care Is a Must — not Selfish
It’s natural to let your diet, exercise and mindfulness lapse when life gets busy. However, when times get tough, you need your health the most — prioritize your human infrastructure.
I often joke that I wouldn’t have survived going back to school without my instant pot and freezer. Spending an hour or two each weekend prepping healthy dinners I could heat while working kept me away from the fast-food drive-thru most days.
Remember that planner? I included my daily exercise and mindfulness practice in my schedule because I knew I needed a healthy mind and body to survive the grind. I certainly wasn’t about to train for a marathon, but I managed to meet the World Health Organization guidelines much of the time by taking after-dinner walks and practicing yoga.
Going back to school sometimes means burning the midnight oil, but I kept my study space out of the bedroom. I know that part of good sleep hygiene means reserving this space for sleep and sex — and I tried to keep a consistent bedtime.
What I Learned Going Back to School
Going back to school as an older adult is an enlightening experience. I wanted to share the most important lessons I received.
If you’re thinking about enrolling, take heart from the five lessons I learned going back to school. You can do it and a brighter future awaits.