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Carmelo B., a business management major at DePaul University in Illinois, never envisioned that after earning an associate’s degree, landing a great job, and starting a family, he would find himself returning to college.
“I moved up the ladder very quickly with a local real estate development company and was very successful—that was, until the market crashed,” says Carmelo. “I was left searching for a job without a [bachelor’s] degree. It was extremely tough, to say the least. There were sales jobs available, but they nowhere afforded me the kind of lifestyle I was used to living.”
Carmelo’s reason for returning to college was urgent: “I needed to go back to school to get in front of people [who] would not have a conversation with me without a bachelor’s degree.”
Motivations for Returning to School
Carmelo’s motivation is common for adult students, says Dr. Donna Younger, dean of academic services at Oakton Community College in Illinois, and author of the forthcoming textbook The Adult Learner Experience (Pearson Education).
Almost all of the adult learners Dr. Younger has mentored over the years have had an external motivator for returning to school: “They have been told or it has been implied that job mobility will be dependent on getting a degree,” she explains.
Carmelo had his family to think about, too. “I was just as busy as the next person trying to make a living and school was not in my future, until I found out my wife was pregnant. That was the turning point for me. I stopped making excuses. I thought to myself, I couldn’t look my son in his eyes and say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’” he says.
Kate B., a registered nurse and 2012 graduate of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina, enrolled in a program close to home. “Initially [getting a nursing degree] meant good hours, good pay, and I could always find a job. I wanted to contribute to our family financially,” she says. As a mother of four, Kate knew it would not be easy to balance her education with her other responsibilities, but she was inspired by the freedoms it would afford her family.
These practical inspirations for returning to school can have a big impact. So can others, like the desire to have a feeling of accomplishment.
Dr. Younger explains that for many students, “As they get back into school and see some success, internal motivators kick in. Once they pass courses and accumulate credits, they feel a sense of pride.”
Bridging Work and School
While reasons for returning to school are clear for many adult students, the connections between their work and educational experiences may be less defined.
Becky Parkerson, co-founder and career coach at Campus to Career Consulting, advises students “to think of education and work experience as two sides of the same coin. I encourage [them] to bring their experiences into the classroom as real-life examples of how knowledge can be applied in the workplace. For example, a sales associate can contribute greatly to a discussion about retail store operations in a business administration class,” she says.
Toben Nelson, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, notes that instructors “really value the perspective that students who have life experience can offer in class. That perspective can be especially valuable for less experienced students. If adult learners can realize how much they are valued, perhaps they will feel less self-conscious about being back in school.”
Many students would love to translate their work experience into course credits that will count toward a degree. Dr. Younger recommends that students “assertively pursue ‘prior learning credits’ to help them achieve their degree more quickly.” Prior learning credits are gained by providing evidence or examples of educational experiences completed before entering a program, and these can include on-the-job responsibilities. Find out if your school offers this option by speaking with a dean, academic advisor, or registrar.
The skills adult learners have can also help them with their coursework. “Everything that I have learned from my work experience has helped me become a better student,” says Carmelo. “I was much more prepared, assertive, and determined than I was as a kid out of high school.”
Dr. Younger points out that older students often know how to “manage projects to completion, [and demonstrate] flexibility when things change.”
The knowledge gained through coursework can also be useful at home. Kate B. explains, “I had never worked in health care before, but had three little boys at home, and so a lot of what I was learning was good, practical information. I also used my kids and spouse as ‘patients’ while learning basic skills.”
All students—no matter their age or circumstance—need support to be successful, and encouragement can come from both informal and formal sources.
To ensure that he stuck with his goals, Carmelo enlisted his close circle of friends and family to help him stay the course. “I told my friends and family what I was doing every step of the way. I wanted to make sure that I remained committed and was accountable for staying on track,” he says.
Kate explains, “I used my advisor quite a bit while planning my learning. [Also,] several of the first-year students were ‘adopted’ by seniors, and utilized their experience to help them get through the program.” Find out if your school has a formal program connecting new students with those who are further along in the program.
“Look for an adult welcome center or a co-curricular program for returning students,” suggests Dr. Younger. Your school may also have academic programs, internship opportunities, courses, or student interest groups for adult students, designed to accommodate the unique needs of people returning to school.
Parkerson recommends building relationships off campus as well. “Network with a local professional association that matches [your] educational pursuits and target career. For example, if [you are] pursuing a degree in human resources, a local chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management would provide an excellent networking opportunity,” she suggests.
Ultimately, your determination and dreams of a better life will keep you motivated. As Carmelo explains, “I’m a goal setter: always have and always will be. So when I told myself I was going to go [to school], I did just that. You have to ‘Just Do It,’ as Nike® would say. No excuses, no distractions, and no turning back.”
More ideas about transitioning from work to school, and back
- Services such as From Campus to Career can help you prepare for both the transition into college and the transition back into the workforce. Visit their Web site at: https://www.campustocareer.net.
- Organizations such as the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning are a good place find out more about how your prior learning experiences on the job may translate into earned credit toward a degree. Gather information by visiting their Web site at: https://www.cael.org/home.
- Some companies offer tuition reimbursement for employees who pursue a degree or certification. Talk with a human resources representative where you work to learn what’s available. The information might impact how you choose a major or the number of classes you take at a time. Dr. Younger says that many employers will say, “We don’t care what your degree is in, you just need to get one.” Others will offer guidelines for employees, such as requiring that classes relate to current work responsibilities.
- Carmelo B. explains that there are plenty of other adult learners in his program. He notes, “I would always introduce myself to everyone in class and connect, usually via LinkedIn, or just exchange information.” Other students can provide support, since they know first-hand what you’re going through. They may also be helpful when looking for jobs or internships. There may also be organizations or groups that focus on the needs of older students. Getting involved can help you feel like part of a community.
- Identify your motivation for returning to school.
- Focus your attention on classes and experiences that will enhance your on-the-job skills.
- Remember: your prior experiences can make you a stronger student.
- Look into “prior learning credits.”
- Find out if your employer offers tuition reimbursement.
- Build relationships with fellow adult students, as well as professors and advisors. They will provide support and insight as you work toward your goals.
Get help or find out more
Check out your school’s career service, adult learners support program, or your employer’s human resources department for additional support.
From Campus to Career
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning