Advice for Returning to School After a Long Hiatus

Did you enter the workforce immediately after high school, or begin college study only to have travel or family bend your path away from academia?

Maybe you’re ready to go back to finish your undergraduate studies, or for a master’s or Ph.D. If, after years of being away from textbooks, term papers and tests, you want to go back to school, you are not alone. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly four million students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities are age 35 or older. These mature learners make up 20 percent of the nation’s college students.

April Boone of Glastonbury, Conn. was one of these four million. She completed her first two years of college after high school, but her strong desire to make a difference in the lives of others carried her to the Bronx, where she worked in a homeless shelter for youth. This was followed by marriage and children. She found herself approaching middle age wanting to continue her education, not only to increase her earning potential, but to satisfy intellectual needs as well.

“At first, I was really scared,” says Boone, “It did take courage, on the first day, to walk into a class with all these beautiful young kids, but after the initial awkwardness wore off, it was actually fun. I began not to care about anybody’s approval. That was real growth.”

Aaron Anderson, author of Engaging Resistance: How Ordinary People Successfully Champion Change, advises that students view a return to school as a major life transition. Anderson, in his position as Director of Strategic Organizational Initiatives at San Francisco State University College of Business, regularly counsels students to take on life transitions one at a time. “In other words,” says Anderson, “don’t be starting a family and buying a house or starting a new job at the same time you dive into a full-time program, because you can overload your capacity to handle transformational change all at once.” He does acknowledge, “…people violate this bit of advice all the time and still come out okay, but following it will simplify the transition.”

Anderson offers this additional advice to help ease the transition for anyone returning to school after a long hiatus:

  • Build a support system: Discuss your plans with your spouse, other important family members and friends. “Everyone needs an ally who is on your side (outside of the classroom or school),” says Anderson. “And more importantly, you need them to understand why you may have to shift priorities away from time with them to spend it on assignments and studying, particularly around exam time.” Boone says that one source of support and inspiration for her was a 43-year-old cousin who had recently completed a degree program.
  • Talk to other students: Seek out students enrolled in a program that interests you. From them you can get tips on time management and other information that will let you know what to expect.
  • Recognize academic weaknesses and seek tutoring: If you fear your weak math skills could be a barrier to success, or your writing skills need some work, Anderson recommends finding a tutor, or taking a basic course to boost your skills before entering a full-time program. Boone took one semester of basic “brush up” courses at a local community college before enrolling at the university where she eventually went on to complete her bachelor’s. She said those classes “put me right on target for the classroom and the rigor of academia, and boosted my confidence.”
  • Start with one class: To ease yourself back into school, begin with just one class in the degree program you are considering. This will help you develop the academic mindset necessary for a more demanding schedule.
  • Reset home priorities and computing habits: If you spend a lot of time with computer gaming and internet surfing, or you spend evenings watching television, you will need to rethink these habits. Homework assignments and research will require time and bandwidth.
  • Get away from your screen: Your college coursework, particularly if you are enrolled in an online program, will keep you glued to the computer monitor. Anderson suggests you carve out time away from the screen for much-needed mental and physical breaks.
  • Give yourself time: The first semester back in school can be overwhelming. Don’t give up. “Give yourself a full semester to adjust,” says Anderson, “as it takes that long to experience one full course cycle and begin to get comfortable with settling back into an academic mindset.”

Are you considering going back to school? Be sure to download this free worksheet to help you through the decision-making process. Also check out Colorado State University’s online program offerings and see how an online degree program could fit into your busy life.

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