Suna Gurol is an inspiration. She successfully earned a master’s degree while working full time, raising a child, maintaining her relationships with her husband, family and friends, and navigating some unexpected turns along the way.

How did she do it? The answer starts, in part, with why she did it.

“Everything was changing so rapidly,” said Gurol, a Web producer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She didn’t know it then in 2008, but the economy was starting its downward spiral, newspapers were beginning to disappear and social media was about to become a key part of our daily lives.

That’s when she learned about the Master of Communication in Digital Media at the University of Washington. “I was really intrigued,” said Gurol. For her, the MCDM program offered an opportunity to study the future of media. So, with her husband’s support, Gurol enrolled.

Managing Time and Relationships

“My husband and I were lucky in that he had gone through grad school when we first got together,” Gurol said. So both of them knew what she was getting into by adding student to her already full list of roles – wife, mother, daughter and employee.

Since each of those roles was important to her, Gurol looked for ways to juggle them effectively. Right away she took advantage of the option to extend her studies from the typical year and a half to three years, with summers off from school. She also established a clear study schedule so that her husband, eight-year-old son and mother would know when she was available.

With so many commitments to balance, Gurol knew that a schedule would mean nothing unless she communicated her plans with those counting on her. “I needed to be crystal clear about expectations with my family,” she said. “For example, every Sunday I’d spend the morning with my husband and son, study from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then visit my mother in the evening.” Everyone understood what to expect.

“I also figured out specific ways to make sure that people in my life still felt valued,” Gurol said. In the case of her husband, she took care of seemingly small chores that he didn’t like doing, such as folding laundry. “Handling those few little things was my way of telling him that I cared even when I didn’t have time to take on much else.”

Handling Curveballs

Despite her careful planning, Gurol still faced her share of the unexpected. A little over halfway through her program, her mother passed away. Gurol didn’t know if she’d be able to finish the term, but some of her classmates stepped up to help.

“One of them said to me, ‘I’m not worried; we’ll get through it,’ and she kept me as up to date and involved as possible on our group work,” Gurol said. “I was so appreciative for all her help.” It made all the difference in her ability to finish out the quarter and take the next one off to care for her needs and her family’s.

Then, life handed Gurol another surprise – she found out she was pregnant. With extra motivation to graduate in three quarters, she doubled up on school. “That was intense,” Gurol said. “I was taking two classes per quarter, still married, still a parent and pregnant. And I was still working full time, of course.”

How, you may be wondering, did she manage it all? “A lot of it is just learning how to ask for help, learning how to get support from wherever you can and being clear about expectations.”

Leveraging Resources

In addition to building support among her classmates, Gurol was able to gain the support of key coworkers as well. “It was helpful to have coworkers involved,” she said. Doing so enabled her to occasionally dial things back a bit at work.

One way Gurol gained their support was to share her studies and resources with her team. “One of the nice things about grad school is that you have access to tons of information. And you can use that to really make an impact at work,” said Gurol “In my case, they were very interested in what I was working on, and it was relevant to their jobs as well.”

Not only did Gurol bring her studies to work, she also brought her work to the classroom. Whenever appropriate, Gurol used class projects to solve work problems, involving classmates and instructors alike. “You get to collaborate with all of these bright minds,” she said, “and, when your finished project applies to work, you end up looking like a rock star because all these bright minds contributed.”

Recognizing the Rewards

In the end, graduate school was a win-win-win for Gurol, her employer and her family. She was promoted at work and enjoyed other, less tangible outcomes as well. “It was confidence building and such a positive experience for me,” Gurol said.

Looking back, she’s careful to point out that she’s no superwoman. “I’m hardly atypical – I was just a mid-career student with a life,” she said. “Anybody can do it. You just have to be very learning focused. But, you know, anyone can do that.”

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