I was asked to write a few paragraphs about my first semester grad school experiences for the new cohort coming in next year. A few paragraphs turned into a lot of paragraphs. Some of this is just regurgitation of what has previously been posted, but since I’ve been so absent from writing lately I thought I would share.
My name is Caroline. I work full-time. I am the mother of a four year-old and the wife of a thirty-seven going on… well, nevermind. I am a terrible housekeeper and even worse chef. As of August 2014, I am also a part-time master’s student in HESA.
It’s been approximately sixteen months since I made the decision to go back to school. In all honesty, the initial motivating factor that led me to apply was that my office would help me pay – secession planning, for the win! I always wanted to go back to school, but it was easy to make excuses: it wasn’t the right time, I was in a career I disliked, we just got married, we just bought a house, we had a baby… there wasn’t time to consider higher education. There was barely time to sleep.
The craziness of those years where I actually became a grown-up settled down. We formed a routine. I had a new job in a field that I was completely enamored with – higher ed administration. The big boss and my amazing supervisor had my back. The stage was set.
I had a less than stellar undergraduate performance and didn’t think I would get into Iowa. I considered an online program in higher education because I didn’t want to face rejection. The big boss encouraged me to at least apply to Iowa, so I registered for the GRE, dug in my heels, and attempted to relearn all of the math skills I had conveniently forgotten over the past thirteen years. I submitted my application, asked for letters of recommendation, took the dreaded GRE… and waited. It was during the period of waiting that I truly realized how much I wanted to be a part of HESA. I was emotionally invested.
And, amazingly, I got in.
When I no longer had the application process to focus on, doubt overcame me. I was nervous and completely terrified of making a fool of myself. I had no idea how I was going to juggle motherhood, family, full-time work, and part-time school. Every day I was overwhelmed with hectic mornings, taking my daughter to daycare, getting to work, making dinner, trying to keep my house clean, spending time with my daughter and husband, and trying to throw in a few moments doing the things I enjoy somewhere in between. I wanted to add grad school to the mix? I had to be nuts. In the midst of my fears and anxieties, it was the simplest advice that calmed me down – a good friend told me that it would all work itself out. It just would. And you know what…
This isn’t to say that it has been a perfect transition. Nearly every day during the fall semester I felt guilt, stress, and/or anxiety – something or someone in my life was being neglected. I didn’t have time to play with my daughter, I never saw my best friend, I didn’t have the energy to make dinner, and my house was (and still is) a state of disaster. There were days my focus at work wasn’t up to par, and there were days in class that I wasn’t as prepared as I wanted to be. It wasn’t until the end of the semester that I realized how very true my friend’s advice was – it really did work itself out.
My first semester is over. I am still excited and motivated to embrace this experience and opportunity. I wish I had a simple formula for figuring out the family/work/school/life balance, but I don’t honestly think there is one. There are things that certainly help – being organized, getting enough sleep, having an amazing partner and support system, being supported and encouraged by my supervisors and co-workers, and lots and lots (and lots and lots) of coffee.
There is one aspect of being a part-time student that is both good and bad. The Iowa program is cohort based, but when you are a part-time student (especially a part-time student in the admin/policy track) you miss out on the cohort experience. This is the bad. While I have gotten to know my cohort a little bit, I have never and may never have a class with them. The appeal of a cohort-based program is that you get to form a close knit support network, and I don’t get to experience that. The good, however, is that I have been incredibly lucky to have the freedom to take classes as I can, which means that I get to take classes with the M2 cohort, the PhD students, and students from other EPLS disciplines.
Last spring my advisor and I made a road map for my course work. We created a game plan for squeezing in as much as possible so that I am able to finish as quickly as possible. Seeing the next three years laid out has been a huge stress reliever. Not only do I know what I need to do and when I need to do it, but (perhaps most importantly) there is an actual end in sight!
With this in mind, I have composed a list of the most important survival skills I learned one semester into graduate school:
- Books, notebooks, and binders are heavy, and they only get heavier as the semester progresses. Invest in a nice back pack, even if you think you look stupid.
- Sleep is crucial. Reading comprehension will not occur if you can’t keep your eyes open.
- Form a support system if you don’t already have one. Partners, family, friends, daycare providers, supervisors, health care providers… everyone has the ability to help you in some way, from listening to you vent to watching your children.
- Ask for help. You can’t do everything, and the sooner you realize it the better. HESA is an amazing community and I have not met a single person who wouldn’t help someone if they needed it. People aren’t mind readers, though, so actively seek help if you need it.
- It is impossible to multi-task when it comes to parenting and reading. Both require your undivided attention, and chances are the dimpled ball of energy that never stops talking is going to win in the battle for your attention. Take a break and play with your kids.
- Take however much time you think you will need to get through your readings and multiply it by 3. Reading is easy. Comprehension takes time.
- Sit down and plan your courses, semester by semester, so that you have a plan. This is already done for most full-time students, but part-time students really need to lay it out. Not only will it help you stay organized, but it will you help you see that your goal is actually achievable.
- Caffeine is your friend.
- Have fun amidst the chaos. Hang out with your friends. Make time for your hobbies or find a new hobby. Remember that you are an actual living, breathing human being who needs to laugh.
- You will be stressed out. You will have days where you have no idea what you are doing. You will always feel like you could be doing something better. It’s okay to feel like that.