How to Go Back to School Later in Life

Thirty years after she got her college degree, this mom decides to go back to school. Here's how she did it.

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gray haired woman in a library with a stack of books

Thirty years after graduating from college with a journalism degree, I saw the disruption in my profession and the need to keep my skills fresh. Last fall, as my teenage children prepared to start the new school year, I, too, started mine. This time, I didn’t tote my backpack around campus. Nor did I concern myself with notebooks and pens. Instead, I excitedly selected my online courses with the mindset that not only was I going to earn a master’s degree from my alma mater, I also was going to challenge myself in how I would learn.

As a distance learner, a term used for someone earning a degree online, I initially felt intimidated by uploading my assignments and communicating with classmates through discussion boards. Of course, I realize some people might find sitting in a classroom again after a few decades equally as intimidating.

Yet, as many industries evolve rapidly and new ones emerge, getting the skills to advance or pivot becomes increasingly important. Today, everyone needs to continually assess their skill set and think about how to get ahead of the changes in their industry.

Here are some tips for how to go back to school after taking time off.

1) Find the right fit

Take your time to look for the best program to fit your lifestyle. Online programs give you flexibility and allow you to pursue at degree at a school that might be hundreds of miles away. Students wishing to pursue an accredited online master’s degree can choose from 521 colleges and 9,968 online degree programs, according to GuidetoOnlineSchools.com. However, if you want a more hands-on learning experience, you will want to look at colleges and university within driving distance. Some students are willing to fly out of town for weekend programs. There are tons of options.

2) Ease into it

I started my first semester with one course, giving myself a chance to adjust to being a student, mother and journalist at the same time. As an online student, I liked being able to watch the weekly lecture on my own schedule. I looked forward to learning something new each week and completing projects that took me out of my comfort zone. I have since taken on more courses each semester.

3) Ask for help

Don’t be afraid to ask your spouse, children, friends and teachers for help. Most of us have a support system around us and all we need to do is reach out. Most universities also have a help desk that offers technology support to students and it is likely you will find yourself in need at some point. The help desk is there because people of all ages use it.

4) Re-imagine balance

Sometimes, I miss being able to spend my days and nights in the library doing nothing else but studying for finals as I did as an undergrad. But going back to school as an adult means balancing classwork and teacher expectations with real life responsibilities -- and maybe even workplace expectations. It helps to keep all deadlines for class, work and family on one calendar and prepare each Monday for the week ahead.

5) Reward yourself

While a good grade is a nice reward, I keep a chart for myself of new skills I am picking up.  Each time I look the chart over, it gives me a huge sense of pride and I feel excited for my future. I put the small skills on the chart as well as the bigger skills. For example, I knew how to prepare a Powerpoint presentation but when I learned how to do a screen recording of myself giving the presentation, I added that to my new skills chart.

As an older learner, I see the value of continuing education with each new skill I master. Today, career success means opening your mind to new experiences and opportunities. As we all know, staying relevant is increasingly vital to succeeding in the evolving workplace.

Cindy K. Goodman is a longtime newspaper journalist and blogger. She writes regularly on work and life topics at BalanceGal.com.

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