I never, in a million years, thought I'd ever go back to school. I attended Hampton University (the real HU) and after four years of college---and however many years in elementary, middle, and high schools--- I was through with being a student. Though I had a wonderful undergraduate experience full of fun, exploration, and growth, I couldn't wait to get my adult on and start earning money at a full-time job.
After graduating from college, I knew a master's degree just wasn't needed. My mentor, a journalist and editor who worked for The New York Times, had a long, successful career and accomplished great things through grit and experience. Many of the journalists I admired did not have master's degrees, and I never had an issue getting jobs with just a bachelor's degree. I always thought that pursuing an advanced degree was something that only benefited those interested in teaching or becoming a C-suite executive.
Fast-forward about 15 years: I'm over 30, and I've worked for top publishing companies. I've launched a semi-successful consulting business. I've seen failure and halted the business. I've gone back into the workforce, traveled the world freelancing, and worked odd jobs in between. (Hey, no shame here. It's called taking risks and living life.)
After all of that, I hit a ceiling in terms of fulfillment, and I wondered what's next. I even lost my enthusiasm for journalism and found myself in a bit of mental rut. One day, I saw my sister---a savvy single mom and Navy veteran---and my mom---a 50-something pastor and government professional---finishing their final papers for their online graduate-degree programs. The light bulb in my head went crazy and the urge to follow in their footsteps kept me up at night. I knew then that I had to apply to a school. I did just that, got in, and boom, I became a student---again.
If you're considering going back to school after being in the workforce, taking a break for parenting, or surviving whatever life has thrown at you, be encouraged by these tips and go for it!
1. Recognize The Salary And Promotions Benefits
Going back to school led me to revisit the stats on graduate degrees and career advancement. Statistics show that getting an advanced degree in fields including business, technology and healthcare can lead to a increase in salary to the tune of more than $23,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Also, after doing a bit more research (ie stalking a few LinkedIn pages of top media professionals), I noticed that most of the them actually have advanced degrees and instead of starting as editorial assistants, they were already associate editors and managers.
Let's also think about this in a different way: Today, you're not limited to the traditional majors for a graduate degree. There are all sorts of programs that could benefit your career advancement. For example, you could pursue a master's degree in organizational leadership (MAOL) versus the MBA if that's more of a fit for your career plans. Try a master's degree in a related field or a program that includes courses that will give you specialized knowledge related to your industry. If you keep these things in mind, you'll remain motivated knowing the potential for return on your time and financial investment.
2. Get With The (Online) Program
With the advent of online options from accredited schools, as well as programs that cater to seasoned professionals, I really had no excuse not to pursue an advanced degree. In the past, online programs were considered nontraditional, and when you'd mention them, people would frown wondering about credibility and educational quality. Today, a third of all students take online courses, and even Ivy League schools---including Harvard and Columbia---offer online options. My program allows me to complete studies from anywhere in the world, and I set my own schedule. There are deadlines, of course, but it's not like when I was in undergrad, where you had a set time and day to go to class and were limited to that. I typically block out time to study and complete coursework just like I do for consulting, fitness, or a hair appointment. The key is to be super-mindful of how I spend my time and really commit certain hours of the day to learning and interacting with my professors and global community of classmates.
3. Find the Financial Aid Plug
I never really paid attention to the fact that jobs actually do offer education-related benefits. Companies including Walmart, PepsiCo and Bank of America offer tuition reimbursement. Ask your manager or HR professional about those education-related benefits that you may have ignored. Consider even applying for jobs at universities that offer tuition reimbursement, remission or employee discounts.
Many universities have corporate partnerships with companies where they offer tuition discounts, so don't be afraid to ask around and do your research.
Scholarships aren't just for high school valedictorians. There are actually options for working adults returning to school to gain knowledge for fields or specialties that are in high demand such as cybersecurity. You may be eligible for scholarships based on your work experience, your volunteer activities, or your involvement in nonprofits or religious organizations. Utilize sites such as FastWeb.com or StudentAid.gov in your search, and tap into your network.
Pay out-of-pocket if you can. Schools offer payment plans where you can make payments throughout the semester. Find creative ways to finance your degree---from side hustles to downsizing in some areas of your spending. Trust me, the sacrifice for two to three years is worth it. If you take on a loan, only accept what you can afford to pay back and start your monthly payments while you're still in school. There's no shame in taking out a loan to reach your goals, but be sure you're taking on debt that you can manage and pay off.
4. Pace Yourself, Sis
You're not that teenaged, full-time college student with a weekly allowance and time on your hands just to study, party and travel. (Was that just me?) In going back to school, I underestimated the rigors of the program and took on several classes at one time in a rush to graduate in less than two years. Though my first semester was a great experience, it was a bit much in terms of combining my current freelance and consulting workload with schoolwork. If you have a busy schedule and are already balancing work and family life, maybe start with one or two courses per semester to get your feet wet.
Utilize some sort of calendar app, set alarms, and schedule your study time. If you're in an online program, this is especially important because it's easy to forget that an assignment is due or that you have to log in for a mandatory video lecture. Be kind to yourself in the college journey and know your limits based on your lifestyle and priorities. My life is mine to live, and sometimes, well, life happens. I've found that it's better to take time to do well than to have to re-take courses due to lack of focus and proper attention.
5. Tap Into Those Student Services
I love the student services my school offers--- everything from tutoring and writing labs to career and mental health counseling. These have been extremely helpful to me as a 30-something-year-old student. I must admit, I initially felt a bit awkward at my age going back to school, almost to the point of self-doubt and fear. I'm not that old but teens and 20-somethings today are doing some amazing things that I've never even thought to do. The scope of technology and its use is much more advanced than it was when I was in undergrad.
Knowing that I have student resources at my fingertips has helped me get over my insecurities.
It's awesome to be able to ask for help in navigating Blackboard or refreshing my APA paper-writing skills. It's also great to be able to just learn from others in the way I hadn't been able to in years. The whole experience has also reminded me that just like a teen or 20-something is new to college and knows all about what's trending today, I have maturity and life experience on my side, so my perspective and contribution is respected and valued. Take advantage of services---many of which are typically included in your tuition cost---that will help you transition into student life and find balance.
Above all else, the invaluable benefits of going back to school mean the most to me. I now have a new sense of discipline and accomplishment that has boosted my self esteem. My re-entry into higher education has also awakened the competitive geek in me who used to fight for an A and loved to talk topics with other very smart people. For me, going back to school also offers new possibilities for becoming a better leader and thinker, and that's worth more than money can buy.
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