Of all the memories from my journey back to college as an adult with two children, the one that will stay with me forever is this: It’s 5 p.m., time to leave for my first night class, and my youngest daughter stands on the porch, tiny arms outstretched, tears coursing down her face.
“Noooooooooo,” goes her scream, which ends in a spectacular wail. “Mommy, don’t leave me.”
How can I do this? I wondered as I sped off down the road, hands shaking on the wheel. How will it ever work?
And yet it did. And it can for you too. There will be struggles — some that all college students face, others unique to parents. But with careful planning and proven strategies, millions of parents are making college work.
Accept What You Cannot Change
To succeed as a parent-turned-college-student, you need to first accept that you won’t be like other students — unless they’re parents too. And some of them will be: Increasingly, college classrooms, physical and virtual, are populated by adult learners, many of whom are parents.
So you likely won’t be alone. But it might still feel like you are sometimes — when classwork and kiddie carpool are competing for your time, when you need to study and your child wants help with her homework.
"The number one challenge we hear, in terms of what prevents someone from starting school, has to do with time management and balancing life with school,” said Claire Lewis, director of Enrollment Services for UW Professional & Continuing Education.
That was the case for Becky Sander, mother to four children now aged 8, 10, 12 and 14, who completed her Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Social Sciences through an online UW program back in December. As if that doesn’t sound complex enough, Sander also homeschools her children.
“How can I possibly have any more time?” Sander had wondered as she considered adding college to her already full plate. (Read on for time-management tips Sander and others employed successfully.)
Financial stability is another issue that, while not unique to parents, affects parent-students differently.
“Even if you begin making tuition, there can be unforeseen circumstances that come up. The car breaks, and the student has to cover that — they have to get their child to care," Lewis said. Additionally, many student-parents are funding child care for young children or financing their child’s college education.
Fortunately, most schools have financial coaches who can help parents navigate hurdles and build a plan.
Optimize Your Strengths
While becoming a parent-student can feel like the hardest choice in the world, or the stupidest, there are many ways being a parent makes you a stronger student.
The first minute I set foot in a college classroom as a grownup and mother, I knew I would never take the time I spent there for granted. I never missed a single class, an attendance record that put my first college experience, as a teenage undergraduate, to shame. I simply valued the opportunity too much.
“Older students often see things in perspective,” said Dr. Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist and the author of Wise-Minded Parenting and other books. “Their life experience contributes to the depth of their academic work.”
I found this to be true, first when I returned for two writing certificates and then when I returned to UW Bothell to earn my MFA. At first I was jealous of the extra time the unencumbered twentysomethings in my cohort seemed to have.
Then I noticed they weren’t necessarily getting more done.
It turns out us parents are really good at multitasking and staying focused, skills we sharpened by rearing children.
“One of our enrollment coaches recently made a call to a prospective student,” Lewis said, “and as the student answered the phone, our coach heard all kinds of noise in the background,” Lewis went on. "The woman answering said 'Hi. I’m teaching my 4-year-old guitar right now, but I’m still available to speak if you are.’ She went on, breaking from a 'honey that's good, next string' to 'OK, what's the tuition?' She was plowing right through her life's circumstances, because this is her goal."
Plan, Prepare: Strategies for Survival
The key to survival as a parent-student is the same rule for parenting itself: Plan. You wouldn’t go to the zoo without snacks and Band-Aids in your bag, would you? Preparing for success at college is the same.
As a parent-student, I learned quickly to separate my time and space devoted to school from that devoted to my family.
Each week, I calculated how much time I needed to complete assignments and study, then I plotted on the calendar when I would do it and where. Saturdays and several nights per week were set aside for studying while my husband shuttled the kids from soccer games to park play.
A related tip: Fit in studying everywhere you can! Online programs are particularly flexible. “[Students] can watch lectures while their kids are at a playdate [or while] their baby is napping,” said Aimee Kelly, assistant director of Academic Services for the UW Bachelor of Integrated Social Sciences program.
Optimizing your time works for many types of programs and students, even those who also work full time. “Maybe you have an hour lunch break every day at work and you can commit that,” Kelly said. Or you might study during your bus commute.
Forget the Guilt
Of course, you won’t be able to do everything. I had to miss a science fair and even one child’s much-rehearsed-for play. "What surprised me the most,” Sander said, “was the guilt of not being able to do everything with my kids that I wanted to. I kept reminding myself that it wasn't going to last forever.”
Speaking of guilt: Don’t give in to it.
“Validate your family’s hardship,” Kastner said. Apologize when you miss a big moment. But don’t give up your dream or your own self-care.
Instead of feeling bad about missed time, involve the kids when you can. My kids loved that now Mommy had homework, and after dinner, we worked on our assignments together. With a younger child, create a box of toys, books and activities that’s only brought out when you need to do school. The novelty will buy you some time, as will the occasional screen time. Remember: No guilt!
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Sander said she knew she needed to go back to finish her bachelor’s degree for her children.
"I tell my kids every day that education, and finishing what you start, is important and to always better themselves. I wanted to teach them perseverance when it gets tough. There's no better way to teach that than demonstrating it."
Lewis, who’s in a doctorate program herself, is expecting a baby. “It's daunting,” she said. “I want my child to go to college, and I want to pay for that, and it helps to remember my own education will help me do that down the road."
And for me, there was no better feeling (besides hitting SEND on my 50,000-word thesis) than seeing the faces of my daughters, so proud of their mom, at my graduation.