You Took a Few Gap Years – How to Successfully Navigate Being a Student Again

I had always thought that I would go to college, yet for many reasons I did not go after finishing high school (many reasons – another story for another time). Instead I entered the world of work, where I found a job with a large retailer that led to a career in management.  Yet, despite doing well in my career, which provided excellent compensation, there was always something missing.  That something was the achievement of a college degree.

College Degree – Check!!

Attaining a college degree was in fact the biggest and most important item on my “Bucket List”.  Yet, when I turned 50, I made peace with the fact that I would not achieve my goal of getting a college degree comforting myself with the fact that I had a good career and that I didn’t have all that many years until retirement.

Then something happened as year #50 was coming close to an end.  I had an opportunity to get outside of my comfort zone – one that required research, studying, a few quizzes, and an intense presentation and interview.  The epiphany I had during this process was that I could still do these things well and that I truly enjoyed the challenge – much more so than sitting on the couch watching T.V. after work.

This prompted me to research local college opportunities, which in turn led me to Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which would give me the option of online courses or in-person classes at one of their satellite campuses in Brunswick, Maine.

You Can Achieve Great Things in This Zone!

For someone who had been out of the classroom for over 30 years, the prospect of being a student again was terrifying.  Luckily, the admission’s office at SNHU makes it a very easy process as far as enrolling is concerned.  While that is the most important first step, the truly challenging part is writing papers again, taking tests, memorizing facts, and OMG- math, how was I ever going to get through that.

I distinctly remember telling my husband that “I’m going to do this, I’m finally going to get my college degree”.  Yet, in my head I was thinking “really?  You’re going to do this?”  When I would start to think about the two math classes that I would have to take for my degree I would repeatedly remind myself to not even think about failing as it wasn’t an option.

Turns out it wasn’t an option as I got high A’s in both of my math classes, along with everything else, as I double-majored, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a BS in Business Administration/HR Management and a BA in Psychology in 3 ½ years.

The best part is that I had an absolute blast doing it (both online and on campus in Brunswick), I met a lot of terrific people, including the inspirational President of SNHU Paul Leblanc @snhuprez, as well as many other VPs and important people at SNHU while I was on the Student Advisory Board.  Best of all I emerged from the experience with the belief that I could do just about anything!

Here are my tips on how to get through college as an older, busy, student.

  • First, make a commitment to yourself that you’re truly going to do this. It would be awesome if your family supported it as well, but don’t let the thoughts of others make this decision for you.
  • If you don’t know what you want to major in, discuss it with the admissions people, and if still unsure start with the classes that are required of most Bachelors, such as English and History, etc. If trying to decide between a couple of majors, take a class from each one of them and if you don’t choose one of them that class will end up as an elective.
  • Review the basics. I used the online program Khan Academy to review my math skills before starting my math classes.  It was tremendously helpful!  As you know we do not tend to use a lot of the math that we learned in school, so this review process refreshed my memory and got me ready for Statistics and Applied Finite Mathematics.
  • Get organized – decide where and when you will do your school work. I thought that I would put a desk in my bedroom to have a quiet space to study, but once I got started I knew that if I did this I would never see anyone in my family (between working a lot and school full time).  So, I did most of my work at the island in my kitchen.
  • Start with one class to get back into the “rhythm” and routine of school
  • Review all the course materials and assignments before the class begins.
  • Review the Rubrics & Guidelines for the papers and projects you will be required to do.
  • Print out the syllabus to use as a checklist. I would put a “w” next to the assignment when the assignment was written, then cross out the “w” and put a checkmark and the date when it was submitted.
  • DO NOT wait until the due date to complete an assignment! I repeat, do not wait until the due date.  I always completed the work one week ahead of time in case something came up (illness, busy at work, death in the family).  This reduced my stress level significantly.  I started the assignments for week one the week before the class started and each week I would stay one week ahead on writing and completing assignments.  Then I would submit them the week that they were due.
  • If an assignment requires you to use a new form of technology, figure out how to do it/use it now, weeks before it is due. I had to record myself in “Tegrity” giving a presentation for my Sophomore English class.  This terrified me, but I figured out how to do it early and it went well.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the instructor a lot of questions. In most of my courses, I was the student who posted most often in the “General Questions” discussion forum.  I wanted to get it right, so I asked.  I was very excited that in my last class, MKT 555 Social Media Marketing, there were over 300 posts in the General Questions discussion board.  This was due to our outstanding instructor, Dr. Jessica Rogers, @DrJRogers, who was very interactive and present in all the discussions.  If you ever have a chance to take one of her marketing classes, do it!!
  • Get involved with the school and other students as much as possible. At SNHU there is an online community that is like Facebook.  It is called SNHUConnect and it is a wonderful place to share with other students, get ideas, ask questions, and form friendships.  I have personally met and worked with (on the Student Advisory Board) the Director of Online Engagement, Tiffany Fifer @tiffer00 and she is awesome!!
  • If writing assignments seem daunting, utilize the school’s online writing center that can provide you with a coach or someone to review what you have written. I used Smartthinking a few times to review papers that I had written and found it to be tremendously helpful in getting me back on track with writing (remember I had been out of school for over 30 years).
  • In many ways technology has made school much easier than it was 30 years ago. Libraries are online, which means that when you do research for a paper, you can do so right from home.
  • Sanity tip – save all your work to a USB drive in case your computer decides to go on vacation while you’re in the middle of classes. I save papers even before they’re finished to make sure that the work that I have done does not get lost.
  • Use your advisor as a resource and support person. I had an outstanding one during my undergrad degrees, Ron Poulin at the Brunswick campus.  He has since retired, but he was the best!!
  • Lastly, work hard to learn more, to grow as a person, and give it your all. Do not just aim to get a piece of paper.  Make every class count and try to enjoy the process.  For me it was, and still is, one of the best decisions that I ever made and one of my very best experiences.  I am now working on my Masters in Organizational Leadership at the same school, SNHU, and I’m enjoying that process as well.

You can do it too!!

Share your experiences with going back to school after years of being out?

Do you have any questions about going back to school that I might answer for you?

More Resources:

Adults Going Back to School

Facing Your Fears of Returning to School as an Adult

The Decision to Return to School

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Jessica Rogers, PhD.

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