Students who go off to college generally do so with the end goal of graduating into a career that will help them earn money. So why do so many of them have to focus on making money and living like a “grown-up” even before they’ve earned a degree?
Today’s college students are not necessarily the party-going sort who spend more time socializing than studying. Actually, according to research by Public Agenda, many of them are likely to be over 25, attending school part time, working 35 or more hours per week and/or taking care of children. Not exactly one big frat party, is it?
It’s no surprise, then, that 71 percent of students who leave school without attaining a degree do so because they need to make more money, and 41 percent of them leave to care for family. Colleges simply aren’t equipped to support the students who need a degree the most, and these students are left with no choice but to abandon their academic studies to take care of immediate, basic needs.
If you are a nontraditional student struggling to make ends meet, care for your family and earn a degree all at the same time, take heart. You have a bumpy road on the path to a degree, to be sure. But with a little forethought and the following tips, you can strike a balance between work and school and keep going after that degree you deserve.
- Get creative with your time. When you’re busy chauffeuring your kids around, doing your umpteenth load of laundry and trying to figure out what to make for dinner, that history exam won’t exactly be top of mind. However, with a little creativity, you’ll find that you can sneak in your schoolwork during those little moments of downtime throughout the day. Does your son have a basketball game? Bring along your study notes. Do you work at a job that lets you read a book when you’re not helping customers? Break out that history textbook. Chunking down your studies to bite-size pieces helps you retain information and avoid cramming the night before a big test.
- Alleviate stress. Stress relief looks different for everyone. You might find that exercises such as yoga, running, hiking or weight training take the focus away from your stressors. Perhaps you enjoy reading, lighting a few candles and meditating before bed. Whatever it is that relaxes you, create a routine around it and stick to it just as you stick to your work schedule and studies.
- Fuel your body. It’s difficult to operate at your best when your body isn’t up to the task. When you’re burning the candle at both ends and eating junk food at every meal, your body will lack the nutrients and adequate sleep it needs to repair itself daily. Start by preparing your own meals and snacks, and pack them in a lunch bag. Shop the perimeter of grocery stores, where you typically will find whole foods such as produce, meats, dairy and whole grains. Go to bed 15 minutes earlier each night, until gradually, you are getting about seven to eight hours of sleep.
- Make time for fun. College is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to mean raging keggers if that’s not your style. How about joining a club or two that interests you? Maybe choose a group that relates to your major and gives you practical experience in your desired field. If all else fails, just grab a friend, rent a movie and pop some popcorn! It’s important to let go, laugh and enjoy life despite your busy schedule.
- Clue in your managers and professors. Communicate with them that your work/studies are important to you, and ask for strategies to help manage the load. Take advantage of office hours with professors to catch up on material or to ask for assignments in advance. Ask managers if they’re willing to be flexible with your schedule during midterms and finals. The more proactive and communicative you are, the more likely they’ll be to accommodate you.
- Get organized online. I like Gmail for organizing my life, because I can have my important documents, emails, contacts and calendars all in one place. The calendar, in particular, is priceless because you can share it with other family members and synch it with your phone. Getting everyone on the same page with schedules and pop-up reminders will help you and your family stay on track and avoid missing important deadlines and appointments.
- Arrange work around your studies, not the other way around. Too many students make the mistake of over-committing to work and under-committing to school. If possible, limit your work schedule to 20 hours weekly or fewer. Although you will sacrifice money in the short term, remember that you are working toward a degree that will be more lucrative in the long term. It helps to create a budget that outlines all of your expenses, and see if there are areas where you can cut back (do you really need the daily $4 latte?).
- Learn the word “no.” When you’re a responsible, dedicated employee or student, people will notice, and they’ll probably ask you to commit to things you don’t necessarily have time for. Know your limits on what you can and cannot do, and don’t be afraid to turn down opportunities if saying “yes” means stretching yourself too thin. Allow the occasional “yes” when it really counts, such as when your child asks you to bake cookies for a class party!
- Learn when to ask for help. You’re a superhero in your own right, just for the fact that you’re working toward a college degree and juggling multiple responsibilities. However, that doesn’t mean you need to wear the cape and mask 24/7. Be willing to reach out to mentors, friends and family when life gets too overwhelming. It isn’t a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it’s a sign that you know your limits, and it’s one of the smartest moves a busy student can make.
- Define your goals, and stick to them no matter what. What is your end goal with your academic degree? Do you want a house, a dream vacation, a dream career? Create a vision board with pictures and quotes that represent your goals. And remember that sticking with your schooling will get you where you want to be, quitting school for your mediocre job will keep you exactly where you are today.
Your hectic schedule is a temporary disturbance on the path to bigger and better things. Come back to your goals anytime you feel tempted to call it quits, and you’ll find the strength to keep going to the end!