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If you’re returning to school after time away-perhaps after being in the military, raising a family, or working-you may be trying to figure out how to get into the swing of classes and assignments while balancing your other responsibilities, too.
The transition back to school will be far less intimidating if you’re prepared, and fortunately, you have more support than you probably realize. Here are some techniques for coming back strong.
1. Get Organized
Returning to school means sticking to a schedule that may be different than what you’re used to.
- Use an online calendar to help you remember important dates and assignments. If you prefer writing things down, always keep a notebook handy.
- Use your school email account to keep in contact with professors and other students. Keep your personal email separate to avoid missing things.
- Use sticky notes, highlighters, and other color-coding tools. These tried-and-true methods will help you pick out the most important information.
- Work on prioritizing the most important things you need to do and set others aside. A to-do list that has “musts” at the top can help.
2. Communicate With Family
In a recent Student Health 101 survey, almost 75 percent of respondents said they have made adjustments to their responsibilities to attend school, often spending less time with their families. Some changes are bound to occur, but it’s crucial to keep loved ones close.
You can call or text family members on your way to class, set up a weekly time to Skype™, or even send “snail mail” letters.
According to 2010 research at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, taking on the role of a student can have a significant impact on a person’s identity. Amy Baldwin, an instructor at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, Arkansas, says, “Explain to family what you’re doing. They may not understand the time commitment.” It can be helpful to highlight why being in school is important for you and also that you’re not letting go of your equally important roles with family and friends.
3. Cultivate New Connections
Use your transition as an opportunity to meet people. If your school offers extracurricular clubs or organizations, join one to get involved. Many schools offer programs especially for returning students, those who have been in the military, or commute to school. Contact the student activities office or your advisor for suggestions.
If you’re taking classes online, make an effort to introduce yourself and talk with other students online or by phone, and try to meet people near you in person. You can also get conversations going by using social media to connect with other returning students.
And don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. You’ll feel more confident going forth when you have the solidarity of other students making the transition back to school.
4. Find an Outlet
Relationships, home life, and financial issues can cause stress as you resume classes. Having positive outlets outside school can help.
- Blow off steam at the gym after class or take a walk with your family after dinner.
- Find solace in community and religious life, like Christina B., who joined a church. “This gave me an instant structure of people who were willing to help me find my way around,” the first-year graduate student at Emory University, in Atlanta, says.
- Treat yourself every once in a while. Go out for a nice meal or take up a relaxing hobby. School is definitely a priority, but your personal life is equally important to nurture.
5. Ask for Help
Dr. Judy Sonnenberg, director of counseling services at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, says, “One very difficult thing for returning students is thinking that they can do it all and they don’t need any help.” She suggests that students make a list of priorities to figure out what responsibilities are non-negotiable and where they need to scale back their expectations.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and be honest about your needs. Schools offer support programs, whether online or in person, and most offer free or low-cost counseling. Hannah D., a first-year graduate student at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, says, “[The counseling center] helped me so much with support and figuring out how to handle other challenges.”
6. Stay Positive
Mary T. Kelly is a Boulder, Colorado-based psychotherapist who not only works with students, but also returned to school when she herself had a family.
Kelly recommends allowing yourself time to adjust. It’s normal for it to take some time to get into a new rhythm. Allow yourself some flexibility to accommodate for the adjustment. For example, Kelly took five years to complete her program instead of the usual four.
Be kind to yourself and be proud. You’re investing in your education while balancing a busy life and it’s normal to run into some bumps along the way. Give yourself the chance to settle into a routine and you’ll see your hard work pay off.
Ultimately, as Kelly says, “Anything you do to improve yourself is going to be a really good experience.”
- Reach out to friends, family, and faculty for help.
- Find an outlet for releasing stress.
- Figure out the “must do’s” and set other tasks to the side.
- Make connections with other people returning to school.
- Use small chunks of time to stay connected to loved ones.
Get help or find out more
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education
The Lumina Foundation, Adult Learners