Steps to take if you want to Return to College

As a teacher, I hope to inspire my students, but often I find that I myself am the one inspired. Yesterday, I spoke with a very wise student from a developmental (aka remedial) math course I teach, and I wanted to share her clear, levelheaded thinking with anyone who is contemplating a return to school.

Like many nontraditional students, this woman has a surprising amount of “baggage” for someone who looks so young. She works while raising a family, doesn’t have a computer at home, and recently lost her car in a nasty separation from her significant other. She’s turned in practically every assignment late and yet she still knows the material well.

I’ve never seen a student who can get behind in a developmental math course and still succeed, so I asked her whether or not she had truly been placed in the course by her entrance exam score. As I suspected, her exam score would have allowed her to take an accelerated version of the course, but she chose not to do so. This woman clearly has the mathematical aptitude to succeed in a more challenging course, but because of her personal circumstances, that aptitude is barely enough to keep her afloat.

I know this student will be successful, because she has a rare quality – the ability to be honest with herself. I do believe that is an ability which can be developed, and I would like to offer some advice on choosing classes and schedules with honesty.

Base your decisions on the real you. Not the person you were ten years ago when you graduated from high school, not the person you would be if you didn’t have a job or a family. The real you with all your headaches and responsibilities, all your atrophied knowledge, all your doubts and fears and hang-ups.

You can hope for the best if you insist. However, if you want to succeed you must plan for things to get worse. College is a sacrifice. You will argue more with your spouse over money and time, since college requires lots of both. You won’t be able to spend as much time on things like child care, pet care, and housework, so plan for damaged relationships, behavior problems, and general filth. You may have to decrease your work hours or adjust your work schedule, and your boss may not be supportive. Your coworkers may resent what they see as a lack of commitment. After all, you are trying to change careers!

The above paragraph isn’t intended to discourage or depress you; quite the opposite! If you’re honest with yourself about the potential consequences of your behavior, you can make wise decisions. For example, you could enroll in a developmental math course instead of the more challenging, stressful course you could take if you lived in a perfect world where only your intelligence mattered.

Be brutally honest with yourself about your priorities. Are you the kind of person who feels like they have to put in their best effort at work? Does it drive you to distraction if the floor isn’t vacuumed? Are you a die-hard soccer mom? A football fan who can’t miss a game? A gardener who cries over a dead seedling?

Don’t kid yourself. You aren’t going to give up your passions or change your personality just because you’re in college! Ignore the people who say life is about attitude- there is no such thing. You can’t magically wish away your quirks, and I, for one, wouldn’t want you to. You must, absolutely must, have time to be yourself.

When you decide on a class schedule, be 100% honest about exactly what you can and can’t sacrifice for study time. You’re leading a hectic life now, so to have time to learn, something has to go; you decide what that is. If you have the financial means to cut back on work, that’s usually best. If not, you need to decide which hobbies and activities are most important to you and be willing to set aside the ones that don’t make the cut.

This is the hard one for all of us- be honest with yourself about your emotions and ability to cope with stress. For some asinine, idiotic, stupid, deplorable reason, people who have trouble coping with stress are stigmatized while people who have trouble doing math are considered socially acceptable, and that’s just ludicrous.

Read the previous sentences ten times. Repeat until you believe it with all your heart.

Now give yourself an honest assessment. Can you really do your best work under stressful conditions like sleep deprivation, family difficulties, and money worries? For some people the answer is actually “yes”. I’ve known students who were gifted this way, but they are not the majority. If you’re not one of the lucky few, then make sure you scale back your class schedule accordingly.

Don’t forget to take into account your interests. Studying for a class you like is a lot easier than studying for one you don’t, even if the class you dislike is “easy”. Forcing yourself to read books you find boring or do assignments you don’t enjoy adds to the stress factor and decreases the total work load you can handle.

To sum it up, don’t ever ask yourself, “am I smart enough to take this class?” The answer is probably “yes”, but who cares? It’s a silly question.

The question you want to ask yourself is this: “Given my family and work responsibilities, my ability (or lack thereof) to handle stress, my aptitudes, my previous experiences with the subjects, and my need for personal time, is this class schedule realistic for me this semester?”

Your teachers, family, friends, and academic councilors will all have different answers to that question. You can listen to advice, but in the end, no one but you really knows what difficulties you face when it comes to learning and handling stress. Don’t give in to pressure from anyone to finish your degree quickly or take on more challenging courses than you can handle. Making good decisions in life is a matter of accepting one central truth-

No one knows or cares as much about your life as you do.