When we think “Back to School”, the common vision is a collection of images – a new backpack full of pencils, paints, and glue sticks, a clean chalk board, or a juicy red apple. As these items bring the sentiments of our early childhood we are reminded of the excitement and challenges that come along with going back to school; a new teacher, new books, due dates and report cards.

Why Go Back to School?

“I have no regrets and I am barely getting started. I get to write my own story and that is exactly what I am going to do.” – quote from Olivia Chavez

Though our visions of perfectly sharpened pencils and fresh paints are nostalgic, we must recognize the broad field of American education from pre-K through college. As the classroom evolves, the convenience of evening classes, part time hours, and online classes gives many adults the opportunity to go back to school to complete or advance their education.

Why go back to school?

Adults often return to college to complete course work to earn a promotion at work, or to change careers; others return after taking a break to raise a family and some are just eager to learn.

Whatever the motivation may be, fitting school into an already busy lifestyle may present a unique set of challenges. Adult students may be working full time or raising a family in addition to attending classes; and in some cases, they are doing all three.

Olivia Chavez is a wife and mother who lives in Artesia and works as a Certified Nursing Assistant at Artesia General Hospital. In addition to working full time and raising three children, Olivia is currently taking her prerequisite classes to enter the nursing program at New Mexico State University in Carlsbad. “I am asked all the time about how I juggle taking care of my three children, going to school full time, and working full time. Honestly, most days I don’t know how I’m going to do it either. I do know that no one is going to do it for me, that I am in charge of what my future will be,” she admitted.

Olivia became a mother and dropped out of school her sophomore year of high school. “Being fifteen years old with no support system, my only priority was to make sure my daughter was taken care of,” she said. As a teen mom, Olivia was discouraged,

“I remember being at the doctor’s office and having all these statistics thrown at me of what I was going to do with my life. I was told that I was just a number in this category now. That I would not excel further than these numbers show; that having children at a young age would kill my chance at being anything more than what they were showing me. I love to prove people wrong. Not only did all those sheets of statistics stapled together sting a little bit, they gave me a sense of what not to be.”

From High School Dropout to GED to College

In an effort to break the stats, Olivia went back to school to obtain her General Education Diploma. “Going after my GED was not an easy road. During this time, my husband was laid off from the oilfield, I was pregnant with our third child, and struggling to provide for our two daughters; we lost our house, our car, and everything in between.”

Through the toughest times Olivia found the inner strength and determination to complete her coursework. “Receiving my GED may seem like such a little goal or nothing at all to some people, but it has been the best thing I could have done for my children. It has opened endless doors and motivated me to keep going after what I want in life.”

Olivia feels a strong sense of pride for her achievements as she is the first person of her family to ever attend college. “If I had the opportunity to give my younger self a word of advice, I would say that life is going to hurt a lot but the self-growth is very rewarding, so no matter how much you want to give up, you have to keep going.”

The victory Olivia felt as she conquered her goals inspired her to set her sights higher. “I plan on continuing my prerequisites for the nursing program until my youngest is in school full time so I can focus on my studies. After I become a Registered Nurse I plan to continue my education for my Bachelor of Science in Nursing to reach my goal of my dream career of being a neonatal nurse,” she shared. For Olivia, going back to school was the opportunity to beat the odds, to prove her individuality, and to provide a better life for her growing family.

As we look into the classroom, we also see a group of adults who choose to return to school to earn a raise, complete unfinished course work, or to change their career. Often these classes are completed in the evening or online.

According to Back to School: Older Students on the Rise in College Classrooms (NBC News, 2014), “In 2009, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that students aged 25 and older accounted for roughly 40 percent of all college and graduate students. That figure is expected to rise to 43 percent by 2020 as 9.6 million older students head to campus. Students over age 35, who accounted for 17 percent of all college and graduate students in 2009, are expected to comprise 19 percent of that total by 2020.”

Starting College at 26 – Isabel Marquez

“I had this voice in my head telling me, you need to do something every day to improve your life. Even if it’s a little something, just do it.” – quote from Isabel Marquez

After years of working in a daycare, Isabel Marquez decided it was time for a change. Isabel, who is now 46 years old, explains,

“I grew up in a single parent household. I didn’t have any immediate family that had any education past a high school diploma. I didn’t have any one to point me in the right direction; I just knew which way I wanted to go. I didn’t attend college right out of high school because I didn’t own a vehicle and I didn’t know how I would be able to go to and from school without one. After my daughter was born, I got a job. I saved up. I got a truck, paid it off and went back to school at the age of 26. I took classes until I had my son, then I took two years off. Then I had two children to support. I thought I better get my butt in gear and finish school!”

When Isabel volunteered in her daughter’s preschool classroom she was inspired to go back to school to get her degree for teaching. Through life’s twists and turns, Isabel managed to complete the coursework and received her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Eastern New Mexico University. “During the time I went to school, life did not stop – I had another child, I got married and divorced, I had surgery to  remove a tumor. My kids still needed time and attention and I had to work to support us. I mean, life went on, school was just another part of it.” She worked for many years at Artesia’s Head Start until she decided she was ready to try something new.

After a couple of interviews, Isabel was matched with an employer and began her career in accounting. She said she had an overwhelming sense of “I am where I need to be.” She explained, “The funny thing about it all is that when I was in high school, I loved my accounting classes. I didn’t choose it as my initial degree, but it all worked out in the end. God does have a plan.”

Fortunately for Isabel, her employer offered to pay for her schooling. This time she went back to school again and obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Accounting online from Ashford University. Isabel now has two degrees and has settled into the career for which she hoped. “At this point in my life, we are comfortable. We don’t have the best of the best, but I am very happy with what we do have. I love my home, family, and my job. And this is because I completed my degree.”

5 THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE RETURNING TO SCHOOL AS AN ADULT

  1. TIME MANAGEMENT IS KEY

School takes a significant amount of time. Many of the graduates we talked to admitted to being surprised by the amount of time that going back to school required; regardless of if it was online or on a traditional campus.

Use things like calendars, to-do apps, or even friends to keep you on-track and hold you accountable. Learn to maximize your time by multitasking or using technology to help you learn while you travel or eat.

Learning to balance your time between family, work, and school is a whole new ball game and for many students it’s the biggest struggle they faced while getting their degree. Having a solid handle on everything takes work and strong time management skills will go a long way in helping you handle everything.

  1. DECIDE EXACTLY WHAT IT IS THAT YOU WANT TO GET OUT OF YOUR DEGREE

Whether you are looking to change careers, finish a degree you started in the past, or just enjoy learning, knowing the end result will help you to stay motivated while earning your degree.

Yveline Dalmacy, a graduate of the masters in diplomacy and international relations from Seton Hall University, suggests determining the real reason that you want to go back and weighing it against the anticipated gain—financial or otherwise. That way, if you start to lose motivation, you can remind yourself why you started to give yourself a boost.

Figuring out the “why” will also help you to choose a program that will get you successfully to where you want to be.

  1. DO YOUR RESEARCH BEFORE CHOOSING A SCHOOL OR PROGRAM

Without high school guidance counselors, parents, and teachers helping you through the college search, you will be doing a lot of the research on your own. Every single person we spoke with talked about the importance of doing a lot of in-depth research before choosing what format to go back to school and which school to choose.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of “diploma mills” out there—or schools without a strong academic track record that prey on the under-education of prospective students. So, be sure to do your homework fully and completely.

Look into the age, accreditation, and cost of both online and on-campus programs. Checking the reputation of the program within the field of study will help to make sure that the choice you’re making will benefit your career and help you to meet your goals.

  1. CREATE A SOLID PLAN FOR GETTING YOUR DEGREE AND STICK WITH IT

Getting your degree is a labor of love. In the beginning, you’re excited to start something new and to learn, but that can be easy to get bogged down in the middle when you’re juggling school, life, work, and anything else that comes up.

Creating a solid plan for your schooling helps you to stay focused and to keep the end goal in mind, and can help to save you money in the end.

In your plan, include specific timelines, milestones, and possibly even rewards (how about a weekend trip or some new clothes after completing a challenging semester?) to keep yourself not only motivated, but also on track.

  1. “JUST DO IT!”

This is by far the best advice that the graduates we interviewed had to give. Doing your research, planning, and taking a hard look at what you want to get out of your time spent getting your degree is a great way to prepare.

But the most important thing is to actually DO it.

Yvette Best, who went back to receive her bachelor’s degree in business administration, put it best, “Your education is the one thing that no one can take away from you.”

It can be hard to take that final leap, but once you have a solid plan; it’s time to take the first step. If you’ve done the research, you will be happy with the results!