Manage expectations when returning to school

Woman working at table on laptop with man cooking and child coloring in background

Returning to college, vocational school or professional training as an adult takes a special sort of resilience. Chances are, other roles and responsibilities have crept into your life since you last took classes. You might be employed full-time, in a relationship with or without children or more heavily involved in community or other activities.

But you know that taking classes, getting additional training or finishing your degree can help you reach your professional and personal goals. So how can you make this academic journey as smooth as possible? Here are some tips for managing the time, resources and people in your life as you return to school:

Identify needs

Instead of thinking about how you can balance it all (because no one can), determine your needs and priorities. Do you need dedicated hours every night to study? Do you need help preparing meals or dropping the kids off at school? Because you are human and there are only 24 hours in a day, establish your must-haves and automate or employ others to help with everything else.

Communicate with stakeholders

Talk to your family, friends and employer about why your education is important and how it will benefit both you and them. When talking with your kids, explain that these changes are temporary, reassure them that their needs will be met and encourage them to be honest about their feelings. The transition might be bumpy. Using tools like a digital family calendar, group chat or photo-sharing app can help everyone stay connected.

Employ mindfulness

Adding student responsibilities to your life will place a greater strain on demands for your time, attention and energy, so it’s important to have strategies to maintain health and well-being. Learning to be mindful, present and engaged in each moment can increase productivity and reduce burnout. Apps like Calm or the Healthy Minds Program help you improve mindfulness and make space for yourself, whether it’s for one hour or one minute.

Reassess regularly

Check in with yourself and others frequently to assess what’s working and what’s not. It’s okay to change your mind or pull back from prior commitments and activities. Think about adjusting your focus from floodlight to spotlight to narrow in on what it is you need to stay healthy and meet your goals.

As you start your student journey, give yourself time and grace to find what works best for you. Now is the time to let go of perfectionism, set boundaries and ask for help when you need it. This leg of your learning journey won’t last forever, but the difference it will make in your life almost certainly will.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Autumn Sanchez, student services coordinator, can be reached at autumn.sanchez@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on September 12, 2021. ​​