Continuing education and career options
After months or even years in the workforce, heading back to school can be daunting. But several thousand Central Ohioans do it every year, their sights set on improving their careers, résumés and earning power.
Cheryl Hay, administrator for the Center for Workforce Development at Columbus State Community College, says it’s all about job security. “If we do not keep ourselves marketable through continuing education, then we will find ourselves irrelevant to the employers of today and tomorrow,” she says.
Many adults are coming to the same conclusion and returning to school. Maybe you’re among them, preparing to step back into a world that once seemed so comfortable and familiar, but may now look unwelcoming.
Don’t be afraid of the process, experts advise. Just be realistic about what lies ahead and make mental preparations now to ensure the best back-to-school experience possible.
Administrators and students alike put this at the top of their lists. Returning students may have responsibilities they didn’t even dream of the last time they were on a campus––spouses, children, mortgage payments and healthcare premiums. These factors add a new level of pressure. The student must maintain success both at school and on the job, and manage all those personal details that come with a more restricted schedule.
A large portion of Franklin University’s student body is made up of older adults. Because the college offers both traditional continuing education degree programs and short-term seminars designed to boost career power, it is an attractive choice for busy adult learners. Student services associate Sarah Moyer says these students must make an active effort to be organized and efficient––it won’t happen accidentally.
“It is important for students to schedule specific time to focus on school,” she says. “I recommend that each student get a day planner so he or she can keep track of assignment due dates, big projects and study time. Students need to know that being successful in school is a big commitment, and it does take a lot of work.”
Most likely, a lot of new applications have come into use since the last time adult students
were in a college computer lab. Technology is an integral part of today’s campus life, and if a student’s job doesn’t include a lot of technical applications, there’s a good chance there will be a sharp learning curve when classes begin.
Kate Carey, associate dean for graduate and continuing studies at Otterbein College, lists some of the ways technology will impact the average student’s school experience: e-mail, course management systems, Internet research, library resources, databases, spreadsheets, word processing programs and PowerPoint presentations.
“There is hardly a college or university that does not use technology in some teaching and learning,” Carey says. The good news is that many applications are fairly easy to use, there are online tutorials available, and fellow students will be able to help. Another benefit is that once a student masters a new application, that skill can be used not only on campus, but also in the workplace.
Study skills/reading and writing
The truth is that most of us fall out of the studying habit when we leave school. If you’re heading back to college, brush off the rust, because studying is, of course, a necessary skill.
Grad school is easier than the undergraduate experience in some ways—and more difficult in others. Because of the nature of the program, students have “self-selected.” They aren’t there because Mom and Dad expected them to go to college; they’re often more internally motivated than traditional students and they’re ready to learn. As a result, there probably will be little dead weight when it comes to group projects. All participants will have a vested interest in success.
But because professors realize the high quality of the students in the program, the material may be more challenging than you remember. Carey says she has been in graduate courses that had as many as 10 required texts. Some of them are e-books and some of them are shorter in length, but returning students should be ready to read. Continuing education students will find no shortage of counseling and advice, but they are expected to be self-sufficient and self-motivated.
Don’t let the challenge stop you from returning to school, though; there are lots of resources available. Franklin University’s Moyer says ample support is available to help students reach their goals.
“Franklin works to create a community of learning for our students,” she says. “Even our online students are able to get involved and be active members of the campus. We offer an online student union where students can form groups and network. We also offer a lot of academic support through our Student Learning Center. I encourage students to use all of the resources that are available to help them be successful and fully engaged in their learning.”
John Palmer, media and marketing communications manager for Ohio Dominican University, adds, “Our academic resource center provides many opportunities for students who might be struggling.” From tutoring to counseling, the services are open to all ODU students, and they are encouraged to look to their peers and the staff for advice and direction.
“Our faculty is very open to helping, too,” he says. “They do a lot of reaching out, and they are more than willing to talk with students about how to be successful in their classes.”
Taking advantage of help at school is key, but it’s important to do the same thing off-campus, experts say. “Support, both institutional and personal, is clearly a factor,” Otterbein’s Carey says. She says encouragement can come from family, friends, church and neighbors, as well as from the school.
“When adults return to college after not being in a formal classroom for some time, it can be overwhelming, and it can be fantastic. The human support factor—whomever that is—often makes the difference. Sometimes this support is hard to measure, but learners know it when they see it.”
Carey says motivated, independent adults can move through graduate school smoothly. But many students count on the camaraderie and friendships they develop in graduate school to help get them through the rough patches.
“From team projects to independent research, a friend can make all the difference in your educational experience,” she says. “You miss a class because of work or family and you have
a ready-made colleague to share notes. Ideas are at the very heart of knowledge, and sharing ideas is what makes a learning experience exciting.”
Clintonville resident Erin Runkle graduated magna cum laude with a psychology degree from Ohio State University in 2004. Six years later, she’s back in school, and this time on a different track. She is pursuing concurrently two master’s degrees (divinity and counseling ministries) at the Methodist Theological School of Ohio, with hopes of serving as a chaplain at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
She is the mother of two children whom she educates at home. Runkle also is a wife, has several pets, shares a close relationship with her parents and sister and volunteers in several community organizations. She says she was compelled to return to school, but knew that she would have to go into the experience with enthusiasm and energy if she wanted to be successful.
“You won’t be leaving ‘normal life’ behind,” she says. “Life continues and you need to be in the moment. It’s just another ball in the air, or another hat that you wear.”
“However, it is important that you be confident in your ability,” she says. “You don’t need to know everything. That’s why you are going back to school. But you need to believe that you are capable. Be willing to be challenged and changed by the professors and other students. You will leave school a different person.”
Aside from starting each day with the properly adjusted attitude, Runkle says it’s also important not to focus so keenly on school that you allow your support system at home to break down.
“You have to remember balance,” she says. “It’s very important not to neglect other parts of your life. For example, I have made a rule that the kids always come first, which might delay my studies a little bit, but what I do with them now will affect their future. My studying can always be finished after they go to bed.”
Just as it’s important not to be too independent at home, it pays to rely on others while you’re in the classroom. Returning to school is seldom an isolating experience, and students will often be required to work together to meet a common goal.
Group case studies, presentations and research projects all bring students together for a similar goal, although the students may have little in common outside the classroom. The result is a wonderful synergy that creates friendships and breeds success.
“What we see is these adult students and working professionals developing immediate relationships,” ODU’s Palmer says. “We see them form close bonds that have a benefit both inside and outside the classroom.” Palmer says that many students report long lasting friendships and skills that are useful beyond the classroom walls.
Rob Chabot, associate director of admissions and recruiting for Fisher College of Business at OSU, says many master’s level courses include both full- and part-time students.
“The full-time students like having the part-time students there because they have real-world experience to share,” he says. “The part-time students like to work with the full-time
students because they might be a little rusty at being students. They learn from each other because they are open to the idea of teamwork.”
Experts say the continuing education experience teaches more than just what’s in the textbooks. Students learn to come together, solve problems and work with people they don’t
know well. It’s just like the workplace, and just like real life.
Kristin Campbell is a freelance writer in Columbus.