Returning to School
I started attending St. Louis University in the Spring of 2008 (coincidentally, we found out we were expecting our second child about two weeks before classes began... yikes! I decided to stick it out, though, as I'd already taken a brief ~cough~five year~cough~ break from my studies after my first son was born and didn't want to be deterred again).
I joined the School for Professional Studies (which has evening, weekend and online classes) because of a special program at work. They actually brought SLU teachers to one of our buildings on campus and the other students were all employees. I only stayed with this program for a year, after that, I started scheduling my own classes and attending on the University campus.
I wasn't sure what the demographic was going to be. It turns out that a majority of the students are female (yes, even in my Computer Science classes). Also, a majority were in their 40's and 50's (many of whom have children in high school and college). There were some folks in their 20's and 30's, but, not all that many.
Of course, we have all felt a certain kinship, despite any age gaps, because we had something pretty major in common... we were all balancing full time work in addition to school.
Declaring my major was somewhat difficult. In the summer of 2009, I made my decision and signed on for the new (at the time) Organizational Leadership and Technology program (it's a combination of two programs, the Computer Science and Organizational Studies coursework). I thought it would give me a more well-rounded education over a straight Computer Science degree.
Although, if they had offered the Informatics degree back then, I probably would have signed up for that instead (:sadpanda: seriously, when did they add that? Sneaky little so and so's.).
The AUGI Annual Salary Survey reveals that, in 2002 27% of responding members had a Bachelor's degree or higher. By 2010, this percentage had increased to 41%.
Handling the Coursework
The program I'm in operates on a compressed class schedule (a class only runs for nine weeks, allowing students to complete at least five classes in a year, one at a time), but, don't let that fool you into thinking it is easy. Almost all of these classes will still cover an entire textbook in that time. The class meetings are four hours long, we still have tests, papers to write, chapters to read in our books, as well as a host of multimedia supplements (darn the technology!!!). It is VERY intense and you have to stay on top of it.
But, it's doable. I have told myself so many times since I began, "you can do anything for nine weeks".
As an applied sciences type of girl, I thought that the core studies would be a boring waste of time, but, I've found that I actually really enjoyed them. I suppose maturity and perspective might have had something to do with that change of heart?
Something a few students don't care for is the fact that many instructors require us to get up and speak in front of our classmates...
Seriously, don't spend time worrying about public speaking. Just pick a topic you're familiar with and trust that you know what you're talking about, it will get easier every time you have to do it, and an increased comfort level in front of an audience will benefit you at work, guaranteed.
I do most of my homework during my lunch hour at work. I am fortunate enough that I have an hour break, and my own office. So, I shut my door, eat at my desk, and catch up on class discussion group posts, read articles, listen to any online lectures and write my papers (I'm so sick of APA formatting guidelines).
Although, since the university upgraded their online classroom platform (Blackboard), I have been able to check into content and discussion posts from my iPhone, so I can use the time normally wasted waiting in line at the DMV, etc.
I might read textbook assignments while watching a movie with the family, or driving around on our weekend errands (obviously, I'm not the one driving, my husband is... I'm riding).
I tend to take my quizzes online after dinner or at some point during the weekend.
~looks around conspiratorially~ Okay, I confess, sometimes, I just can not get everything done in the time I have allotted... so, typically toward the end of the semester, I will schedule a day off of work, and spend it tucked away into the corner of our local library (which is much quieter than the university library). I use this time to finish up any major projects and study for my final exams.
I also try to take my notes in an electronic format as often as possible... when you're cramming for an exam, it's a lot easier to do a search for a specific term, than to have to flip through an entire notebook in a vain attempt to locate a single piece of data.
Paying for Classes and Textbooks
Obviously, cost was a major consideration in my education. I'd only pursued an Associate's degree as a youngster because it was all that I could afford at the time (although, I was pleased at finishing that without owing anyone any money). I wanted to obtain a Bachelor's degree, but, I just wasn't sure how I could pay for tuition and books and fees, etc.
My employer will agree to reimburse a set amount of tuition (and fees and books) per year, once a degree program has been approved by our educational benefits department. That is something for which I am extremely grateful, of course.
I wanted to take more classes than they were able to pay for, though, so I completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the first step for obtaining grants and loans to help with the expenses. The financial aid office also links to resources to find specialty scholarships.
Unfortunately, I will have some student loans when I graduate, but, I wanted to complete my degree in four years, rather than eight, so I bit the bullet.
I don't buy my books from the school bookstore, I buy them from Amazon. You have to keep an eye on the class information and try to purchase your books as soon as possible... if you wait until two weeks before the semester starts, you'll notice the prices jump as the book sellers realize certain books are in demand. Sometimes, you just cannot find used books at a reasonable price, so, I've actually rented them.
In order to pay for the books, I've done some work through Amazon's crowd-sourcing program, Mechanical Turk. Most of the gigs (hits) don't pay diddly, but, you can sift through and find some that are easy enough to do while you're watching TV, and, if you get fast enough, the earnings can add up.
Also, I like to do some usability studies with Autodesk. Some of their longer studies provide an Amazon gift card as a 'thank you'.
While my employer finally added the benefit of reimbursing for textbooks (last year?), I'm the one purchasing them up front, and I'm not going to be wasting funds.
Last night... ~pausing for dramatic effect~ last night I received written confirmation of my application to graduate. It is official, I will be completing my coursework (with all classes already scheduled) in 2011.
~waits for applause to die down~
I'm happy to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm sure my family is, too.
I really think that, given my tendency to do most of my work during my lunch hour, I've minimized the impact on my family as much as humanly possible (although that effort may not have been as noticeable, as I was still freelancing a bit during this time)... but, we will all appreciate my extra energy, when I no longer have to get up early, stay up late and come home from work worn out because I didn't have a single break during the day.
No. I'm not entirely sure how I will put this degree to work. Over the past couple of years, I have become more involved in Project Management roles for our department's technology initiatives, which enables me to use my experience with 'that computer stuff', as well as my experiences with the details (scope, specifications, bidding, budgeting), so expanding on that might be the logical way to get some use out of my education. I obviously love my coworkers and believe in the work that we've been doing together for over a decade, and it will be nice if we are able to put our heads together and find something for me to do. ;-)
I will also be continuing my education and pursuing a Master's (MS) in Informatics. Thanks to an accelerated program at SLU, to kick start things, I've already taken one class toward this degree and will have another this Fall.
I hope that, in recounting my experience here, I can give others an idea of what it has taken to complete a goal like this (answer summary: stubbornness, time and having superman for a spouse).