Balancing school, family, and work when going back to college

Career Corner September 2018

Angeline Mboutngam moved to the United States from Cameroon in her mid 30s with dreams of going to college. Personal and financial obstacles made an undergraduate degree seem impossible, but somehow Mboutngam graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison this spring with a degree in community and nonprofit leadership.

Sybil Pressprich UW Continuing Studies
Pressprich: Think about what balance means to you.

How did she accomplish this miracle? It took a village—along with an approach to college that’s more appropriate for grownups than for teenagers. Here’s how other returning adult students can follow her example.

Get the family on board. Tell your partner and children that a return to school will be challenging, but remind them of the benefits your education will bring. If possible, loop in grandparents, aunts, and uncles—and friends who function as family. Let this be a lesson for kids, too. You can model good study habits and maybe even do homework in tandem with your teenagers.

Prioritize. What do you refuse to give up when going back to school? Make a reasonable list of “non-negotiables” and build your calendar around them. Maybe reading to your children every night or having one date night a month is a must. Recognize that you’ll have to make tradeoffs, but aim for hitting your priorities most of the time. Also consider what chores or activities are more flexible, and which ones you could farm out or drop.

Organize. Keep schedules straight and have backup plans for when kids get sick or cars break down. But go beyond your calendar to your physical space. Set up easy storage and create habits like putting away homework or laundry as soon as it’s finished. Don’t be late for class because you couldn’t find your (or your child’s) sock.

Ask for help. Think of friends, neighbors, and other parents, and how your duties overlap. Years ago I made arrangements to have another mom take my daughter to ballet every Tuesday, the evening I worked late. I paid her back with gratitude, a gift card, and a loaf of pumpkin bread. Then I took a turn driving the next year.

Use local resources. Although it’s not for everyone, Mboutngam moved her family to University Housing, where she took advantage of convenient childcare and other benefits. She also used teaching assistant office hours, tutoring services, a writing center, counseling, and the unique EcoWell Studio in the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology. Here, students are invited to sit in silence or practice meditation—anything but study.

Ditch perfection. No one cares if you make fancy cupcakes from scratch for the school bake sale. Buy some and put them on a nice plate.

Career Corner September 2018
Returning adult student Angeline Mboutngam spoke about barriers and triumphs of returning to college at a UW-Madison event.

Think about what balance means to you. It can be measured by how you’re feeling: Are you frantic, calm, somewhere in between? Know your tolerance for chaos, and try to create a situation that works for you and your family.

Most importantly, celebrate accomplishments along the way and remember that these hardships won’t last forever. Like Angeline Mboutngam, you’ll graduate and enter a whole new world.

Career corner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Sybil Pressprich, director of career services and career counselor, can be reached at sybil.pressprich@wisc.edu. This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.