Braving the Books: When a Parent Goes Back to School

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Three days after being accepted into a Ph.D. program, Cari Weber got some more exciting news: she was pregnant with her first child. Terrified by the thought of balancing parenting responsibilities with her academic ones, she wrestled with the idea of quitting school. But, two weeks after giving birth, she found herself back in the classroom full-time.

Seven years have passed since Weber first began pursuing her degree. She now has two daughters, is pregnant with her third child and is still plugging away at the schoolwork. “It can be very frustrating at times, like when you are trying to do homework and the kids are there and the house is a mess. But it has its upsides, too,” comments Weber. “I like having the identity that school gives me. I like the opportunity to interact with grownups, and it’s nice to get feedback, like an ‘A’ on a paper. No one gives you an ‘A’ for being a mommy.”

Today, more and more mothers like Weber are successfully combining the roles of parent and pupil. Although pursuing an education while raising a family takes careful planning and a lot of hard work, the rewards can be bountiful.

Colleges that Cater to Caregivers

As the number of mothers and other adults wishing to continue their education rises, many colleges are working to make balancing school and home life easier to do. Some now offer accelerated degree programs, which allow students to obtain their bachelor’s degree in two years, instead of the traditional four. Many also offer night and weekend courses, classes that meet just once a week and day-care programs for students’ children.

To make the commute less of a burden, some institutions offer courses at a variety of locations, such as community centers or high schools. Many colleges also offer select courses or entire educational programs online. Internet courses can be accessed 24 hours a day, so busy moms can work from home whenever they have spare time. Much of the research required for papers and projects can be done online, as well.

A Transforming Experience

Although adding schoolwork to an already hectic schedule might sound like a tiring experience, it can also be a transforming one, says licensed psychologist Vincent Morello. “Once a mother has taken on the challenge of going back to school, she often finds the courage to take on new challenges and succeed, try new things and accomplish them and aspire to greater goals,” he says.

Further education can also broaden a mother’s horizons, which often might not seem to stretch beyond the playground or the grocery store. College provides an opportunity to meet new people, investigate new subjects and be part of a different setting.

Studying a favorite subject can, in turn, lead to a satisfying career. “When moms are in the workforce, they often have taken a job they feel they had to settle for,” says Morello. “Going to college not only prepares mothers for a job that they have their heart into, but one they can also be successful at.”

A Family that Studies Together

A mother who goes back to school can serve as a wonderful role model for her children. By her example, she can show them school is important and worth attending. Student moms have an opportunity to share similar experiences with their school-age children, as well. “A mother who goes back to school can empathize with and relate to what her children are going through at school. It can be a great bonding experience,” says Morello.

The Burdens of Going Back

Returning to school can, unfortunately, be as wearisome as it is wonderful. Taking courses means spending time away from the family. Juggling school, work and household responsibilities can become overwhelming. Focusing on schoolwork while the kids are around can be near impossible. And perhaps worst of all, there’s never time for Mom to nap between classes. Before signing up for school, it’s important to be prepared to take on those extra burdens.

Realistic expectations and prudent planning can help make those challenges seem less overwhelming. “Start slow,” advises Weber. “Don’t dive headfirst into a full-time program. Try taking one class first. If tackling one course turns out to be a disaster, four would really be a disaster!”

The very first step to take, says Carol Ann Baily, director of MTSU’s Adult Services Center, is to “call the admissions office and ask them to mail you a catalog and schedule book.” Baily suggests that adults returning to college “really need to shop around” at area schools, “because programs at each school differ. You need to go through the application process to find out if they have the program that interests you and to figure out how it fits into your schedule.”

The main concern of most adults returning to school, says Baily, is that they won’t fit in. “They think everybody on the campus is 18 years old, but they aren’t,” she says. “They visualize college the way they might have seen it 20 years ago, but these days, almost 50 percent of our student body at MTSU are adults. All colleges nationwide have increased their number of undergraduate students over 25. There are lots of older people going back to school, and most schools have a place where adult students can gather and work. The thing to keep in mind is that you’re not going to be alone.”

In order to be truly successful at school, student moms must find ways to enjoy the educational experience. That might seem impossible, amidst the constant ruckus that usually fills mothers’ days. But peace can be found in a hushed library. Memories of school years past can be reborn from the musty smell of a textbook. The future can be glimpsed in a course taught by a gifted professor, and inspiration can be found while struggling to write the perfect thesis. No matter how busy and complicated our lives become, a love of learning is something we should never outgrow.

Kelly de la Rocha is a freelance writer, editor and the mother of two.


Evaluate before Enrolling

There are many things moms should consider before enrolling in an educational program. Here are a few:

  • Figure out your finances. Can you afford to add a tuition payment to your current expenses? Don’t forget to investigate financial aid options and find out if there are scholarships you can apply for.
  • Consider your children’s ages. The older the kids, the less attention they demand. While big kids are at school, you could attend classes or study.
  • Contemplate the time factor. How much time can you feasibly dedicate to commuting, classes and homework?
  • Take your personality into account. Are you disciplined enough to stay up late or get up early to get the homework done? Are you willing to go to the library on a sunny Saturday to do research while the rest of your family goes to the pool?
  • Evaluate why you want to go back to school. Talk to your partner about your desire, and make sure you have support before taking the plunge.

Back to the Books

For information about online degree programs, go to Tennessee Board of Regents.

American Baptist College
1800 Baptist World Center Drive, Nashville
262-3433

Aquinas College
4210 Harding Road, Nashville
316-9366;

Belmont University
1900 Belmont Blvd., Nashville; 460-5401

Cumberland University
One Cumberland Square, Lebanon; 444-2562

Draughons Junior College
340 Plus Park Blvd., Nashville; 361-7555

Fisk University
1000 17th Ave. N., Nashville; 329-8500

Lipscomb University
3901 Granny White Pike, Nashville; 269-1000

Meharry Medical College
1005 Dr. D.B. Todd Jr. Blvd., Nashville; 327-6111

Middle Tennessee State University
1301 E. Main St., Murfreesboro; 898-2300

Nashville Auto Diesel College
1524 Gallatin Road, Nashville; 226-3990

Nashville School of Law
2934 Sidco Drive, Nashville; 256-3684

Nashville State Technical Institute
120 White Bridge Road, Nashville; 353-3333

OMore College of Design
P.O. Box 908, Franklin; 794-4254

Southeastern Paralegal Institute
2416 21st Ave. S., Ste. 300, Nashville; 269-9900

Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Blvd., Nashville; 963-5000

Trevecca Nazarene University
333 Murfreesboro Pike, Nashville; 248-1200

Vanderbilt University
2305 West End Ave., Nashville; 322-7311

Volunteer State Community College
1480 Nashville Pike, Gallatin; 452-8600

Watkins College of Art and Design
100 Powell Place, Nashville; 383-4848

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