Parenting is a challenge. So is earning a college degree. Doing both at the same time can be daunting, especially if you’re also the sole breadwinner for the family.
The good news is that thousands of parents graduate from college every year, in a number of majors achieving their dream of a better, more secure life for themselves and their children. Not only do parents succeed in college, they bring some definite advantages to the college experience. Among other things, Parents tend to be more focused, determined and mature than other students as a result of their life experiences and added responsibilities.
While there’s no question that parents can succeed in college, there’s also no question that it requires an extra degree of planning and self-discipline, as well as a healthy sense of perspective. Here are 7 tips for parents on the path to a college degree.
1. Make a schedule. Time is your scarcest resource, so it’s important to make the most of it. Just like its always a good idea to know where your money is going, it’s important to know where your time is going too. If you’re not intentional about scheduling regular time for study and the other important things in your life you’ll quickly find yourself behind and overwhelmed. Consider doing a time audit. Take a few days to be intentional about tracking how you spend your time. You might be surprised by how much of it you spend on things that are little more than distractions from the important things in life. It’s all about priorities.
2. Leverage your relationships. Don’t try to do this alone. You’re going to need all the emotional and material support you can get. Develop relationships with other parents in school that you can share your experiences with and find encouragement from. Many schools have support groups for parents. If yours doesn’t, check out one of the online groups in the resource section below. Let your extended family and/or faith community know what you’re doing and ask for their help with childcare, meals, transportation for the kids, etc. Finally, get to know your professors. Let them know about your situation. Many professors are willing to make special arrangements for parents, granting extra time to complete assignments, etc.
3. Eat well. Busy people are always tempted to skip meals and/or eat a lot of junk and fast foods. While these things are fine in moderation, a person’s diet has an enormous affect on their immune system, energy level and mental alertness. It’s generally better to spend the extra time it takes to prepare a healthy meal. The time you spend in class and studying will be much more productive, plus you will get sick less often and have the energy to concentrate longer. You’ll be setting a good example for your kids as well.
4. Exercise. Like eating well, regular exercise increases alertness, energy, productivity and reduces anxiety. Make it short and simple. Take a walk. Ride a bike. 10-15 minutes a day, or even every other day, is enough to make a difference. And again, besides all the benefits just mentioned, you’ll be setting a great example for your kids.
5. Get some sleep. Sleep is usually one of the first things to go for college students and parents. And yet, like eating healthy and exercising, the benefits of getting enough sleep usually far exceed the costs involved (like having less time to study). Among other things, sleep aids memory retention, problem solving and the ability to maintain perspective. If you’re having a hard time concentrating, find yourself getting stressed out, or losing patience with your kid(s) more than usual, try taking a short nap or going to bed earlier. This will likely require sacrificing other activities, but it will pay off in the long run. Again, it’s all about priorities.
6. Have realistic expectations for yourself. Most colleges and professors design their curriculum with the traditional, non-working, childless student in mind. Obviously these students have much more time to devote to their academic studies than the average working parent. The trick is not to hold yourself to these same unrealistic expectations. To do so is a quick path to burning out, and eventually, to dropping out. Given your situation, a B or a C is the equivalent of an A or an A+. True, this won’t be reflected in your transcript, but unless you’re planning to go to graduate school in the near future, your course grades don’t matter all that much (and even then, they’re not as important as you might think). Prospective employers are going to ask to see your degree, not your grades. So, work hard and learn what you need to, but if you can’t get all the reading done because you were up all night with a sick kid, or you couldn’t finish all the homework problems because you were just too tired after work, don’t sweat it. Make sure your professor knows about your situation and cut yourself a break. Your professor just might do the same.
7. Keep your eyes on the prize. When things get tough (which they will), take time to reflect on what all this is for. Imagine yourself walking across that platform or receiving that degree in the mail. Imagine the job opportunities opened up for you with a college degree. Imagine the life you will be able to provide for you and your kids. Imagine the example you are setting for them. Perhaps most importantly, imagine what this will mean for your own sense of self. You will be a college graduate!