Adult student and mother of five shares trials and the triumph of getting her degree

Rachel Smith

It’s no secret that coming back to college after a hiatus is difficult. The University of Wisconsin–Madison supports returning students through Adult Career and Special Student Services (ACSSS). Rachel Smith, for example, was honored by ACSSS at an April 2018 event, receiving the University League Scholarship to finish her degree as an adult student.

Smith began at UW–Madison in 2003. After getting married, buying a home, and raising a family, she returned in 2012 to continue her undergraduate career in psychology. She commuted 120 miles a day while taking care of her five children with her husband. Smith plans to complete her degree this year and hopes to have a career helping children and families. She believes resolve and perseverance are vital in overcoming obstacles to getting a degree later in life.

Here, Smith paints an honest portrait of what it’s like to be a returning adult student.

My return to school has involved patience and keeping my sights set on the primary goal: graduating so that I could be an example for our kids and better our lives. I knew completing my degree wasn’t going to happen overnight. I didn’t know how our family was going to weather all of the demands that this would require. But my husband told me, “Enroll, and we’ll adjust along the way.” I did and have slowly but surely completed semesters with pregnancies in between.

Rachel Smith
Rachel Smith received the University League Scholarship to finish her degree.

Support system

I’m incredibly thankful that my support system, which includes my husband, mom, and sister, was ready to adapt along the way. I was enrolled with a three-month-old and pumped in between classes, as well as while pregnant with a daughter who was high risk. Every step of the way these three people always asked, “What do you need from me?” Without that, my journey would have been much harder.

The kids have gotten used to walking to grandma’s house after school and getting picked up by daddy, who would then make dinner while I was at school. They get excited when their aunt picks them up for school on her lunch break. It’s more chaotic than when I was a stay-at-home mom, but it’s still stable and consistent for the kids.

Journey of an adult student

I needed to remind myself very often that I had an important goal. There were many nights that I was behind on laundry, grocery shopping, yard work, responding to emails, checking the kids’ backpacks, you name it. It was overwhelming and easy to trick myself into thinking I was failing.

These were all fleeting things—I was temporarily behind on laundry, but I would catch up when I could. Would this small setback matter in three months? A year? Probably not. It was part of my journey, so I didn’t focus on it or beat myself up about it.

I tried to focus on the big picture for all of my classes as well. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with specific assignments, to the point where it all feels intimidating. I’ve learned that if I stay consistent and do what I can, when I can, I’ll do just fine.


Smith Family
Rachel and her husband with children Lee (11), Lucy (8), Lily (6), Liberty (4), and Bobby (3).

We’ve experienced a lot of setbacks throughout the years during my return to school. I’ve been stranded halfway home in Columbus, Wisconsin, twice—once due to a brake caliper and once to a leaky radiator. My husband and I joke that we should just buy a house there.

I’ve left for school and was at the edge of leaving our town when I received a phone call from the elementary school that my daughter had lice. I turned around and shampooed her hair with lice shampoo as I washed down every inch of our house. This same daughter also suffered a sprained ankle at recess on my first day of school.

Our entire family came down with the flu, and I worked on homework in between comforting feverish kids then struggled to stay awake and do homework as I endured the flu myself.

Eyes on the prize

Almost all of these events caused me to miss class. That can be rough, especially when part of your grade can count on it. I’ve learned that many of my teachers understand, and sometimes it’s worth it for me to take the hit on my grade. That might sound ridiculous to a traditional student, but my life isn’t like theirs.

My priority is my family and doing what is best for them. Sometimes that means losing a couple of participation points here and there. Again, it comes back to looking at the big goal and knowing that all of this is part of a great journey.

To learn more about the options for returning adult students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, contact Adult Career and Special Student Services at 608-263-6960, advising@dcs.wisc.edu.