Monday, October 7, 2013

So you want to be a non-traditional student...

At the beginning of every school year there are numerous articles shared on news sites and blogs that give all sorts of advice to incoming college freshman. They offer ways to deal with homesickness, how to make friends, doing laundry and keeping up with homework. It's all generally pretty good advice and if you are your typical college freshman, living in a dorm and college IS your life they can be quite helpful. But what about the rest of us?

What about those of us who already have well established lives with jobs, families, a strong circle of friends, hobbies, and living spaces to maintain? Making a return to school, whether part-time or full-time will be a huge adjustment for us too. Where is the “What You Should Know About Returning to College When You Already Have a Life?” Well, it's here, finally. At least here are five pieces of advice I wish I'd been given when I decided to make the return to school.

1. You will question your sanity. (and likely loose your shit at least once) It may happen on a Friday night around 11:30 PM when everyone else in your time zone is either asleep or out sipping fancy cocktails at your favorite bar. Or it will happen as your alarm goes off at 4:00 AM so you can get up early enough to squeeze in a run before you head to the library to give your paper one last review before handing it in. Or it may happen in a class when you realize every evening of your week is booked and the professor just asked you to squeeze one more assignment into your schedule and you suddenly break into tears. It will happen. It will likely happen more than once but you will be okay.

You've just taken what is your already full time life and heaped 10 to 15 hours of classes and another 20 hours of homework on top of it. That's like taking on a second full-time job. Life can go from busy to go-go-go-go! It's going to be a major adjustment. What do you do about it? Take advantage of peace where you find it – sitting beneath a tree between classes, a 20 minute walk in the afternoon or reading a chapter in a non-school book before bed.

My morning coffee time is sacred. It might be the only 15 minutes of sitting still in my day and I treasure it.

2. Sleep is just as important at 30, 40, it is at 18. Nearly every article out there for new freshmen tells them that they need to make sure they get enough sleep. It holds just a true for those they call non-traditional students. Enough sleep will go far in preventing excessive recurrences of item number one. And here is where the adults have the advantage, while many articles state that most teenagers need anywhere from 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep, we can get by with 8 to 9. That's an extra hour of study time!

Now I know as well as anyone that 8 hours of sleep was a near impossibility for most us before we returned to school (heck I probably average about four to five hours a night if I'm lucky) but try to get a full night as often as you can. It makes a world of difference.

3. Your friends will wonder where you have gone (and you will miss them). You will say, “I'm sorry, I can't (attend the baby shower, potluck, go have a beer, see a movie...etc.) because I have (homework, reading to to do, research, a paper to write...etc),” often enough to sound like a broken record. This part does kind of suck especially if, like me, you were a very social person before you decided to make the return to school. It can be especially hard when you do see your friends and they are all swapping stories about gatherings you were not able to attend. It can be so easy to feel like you are missing out on something and that blows at any age.

First take a moment to recognize that you are doing something important for yourself. You made the decision to return to school because you wanted to. Your friends will recognize that and hopefully be supportive. Second, you will have time that you are not in school. There will be holidays, vacations and summer break. During these times you can make an extra effort to spend time with those you love. Third, take time to at least make an appearance at the important events like weddings and birthday parties even if you can only stop in for fifteen minutes it will be a way to show you still exist and likely be a nice break from the school grind for you.

And fourth. When you are done all of this and you finally take that walk to be handed your diploma you can throw one hell of a party and invite them all.

4. Don't compare yourself to other students. I'm not talking about those brand new freshmen. I'm talking about the 35 year old mom who is in your sociology class, or the 47 year old man in the suit who rushes into accounting with only seconds to spare, or the 51 year old artist who always has something interesting to say in your intro to lit course (all of whom get straight A's). It can be so easy to say to yourself, “I should be handling this better. I mean so & so is (a mom, a CEO, managing a their own business...) and they can pull it off.” or “Well of course she has it easy. The husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend takes care of dinner and the house while s/he does school work.” or just “Everyone seems to have it soooooo much easier than me.”

Your situation is just that, it's yours. You can't know what the life of another person is like. Those other students may be looking at you and thinking, “Oh this would be so much easier if I were single like her. She must have so much free time on her hands.” Right, because all you did before school was sit around petting the cat and eating nachos. Keep the focus on yourself and your work. You are doing the best you can within your own set of circumstances just as they are.

Finally avoid at all costs that “who has it worse” conversation that inevitably comes up if you have a friend in school at the same time as you. Neither of you will be willing to give up your grip on the gold medal for exhaustion so why go there?

5. Recognize that it this has an end. Every semester brings you one step closer and at some point in the future you will take your last class; the hard work will pay off and you will be handed your degree. Really, it will end, you will have time to breathe again and then you can start to make plans for graduate school!

There are probably a few other things I could add like B's are an okay grade, schedule EVERYTHING and coffee will be your best friend but those five items are the basics. If you are currently a student or considering a return I do hope you find them helpful.

See you next week.

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