There is a lot of uncertainty related to the job market right now in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, unemployment rates are at historic highs, since many people have been laid off or furloughed due to businesses being closed indefinitely due to statewide “Safer at Home” or “Shelter in Place” orders.
None of us know when this pandemic will end and if or how life will return to relative normal. However, we do know that sadly, some organizations most likely will not survive.
If you have been laid off or furloughed and are facing uncertainty about the future, you may be wondering what to do in order to move your career forward during this time. For some folks, continuing their education may be an ideal solution to help bridge the gap. For others who have been fortunate enough to be able to continue working, whether in-person or from home, returning to school may also be something you’ve considered in order to advance career as well.
However, as busy moms, time isn’t something we tend to have an excess of, even while safe at home during this pandemic. Particularly with kids also at home completing their school year online. Along with spouses or partners who may also be trying to figure out how to stay afloat through this time period.
One advantage, is that many educational institutions across the country already have robust online degree programs. And others are in the process of launching them. Which means, access to education is easier than ever before. Though financial hurdles to completing or continuing your education of course, still exist.
I made the decision to pursue my Master’s degree last summer, after nearly 20 years away from formal education. I graduated from UW-Madison back in 2000 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Arts and have been working for the institution in some capacity ever since, currently as a Career Services Director.
I’ve been at a Director level for over 15 years, so to advance my career in higher education, I knew a Master’s degree would be necessary at some point. I met with an advisor at Edgewood College about 7 years ago when they first announced their new fully online Master’s degree programs. But I talked myself out of it at the time. Nevertheless, I stayed on their email list and continued to get updates on the program over the years.
The idea of going back to school, while working full-time with a 4-year-old, was pretty intimidating. I wasn’t sure how I could make it all work without losing my mind. Plus, I didn’t know how to pay for it. However, with at least 25 years of work left ahead of me until retirement, delaying it further didn’t seem to make much sense.
To further explore the potential, I talked with several working parents about how they were able to balance going back to school with both parenting and work in order to make an informed decision about whether or not I would be able to manage. They all encouraged me to go for it and confirmed that yes, it would be hard, but that it is also temporary. Most graduate degree programs can be completed in two years.
When I received an email from Edgewood last summer announcing their new Graduate Tuition Promise, announcing that they had reduced tuition by up to 40% for some programs, I was intrigued. I mean, I do love a good sale. And this is something I’d had my eye on for quite some time.
In learning more, graduate tuition for programs in the Edgewood School of Business had been reduced 25%. Tuition in their School of Education had been reduced by 40%. Those are significant cost savings for a private school education. And made tuition at Edgewood College comparable to, if not slightly cheaper than, tuition at my own institution.
So, I applied.
The application process was actually pretty easy. I filled out a form online and then had to write a personal statement, provide two professional references that could speak to my ability to be successful in graduate school, and send them my college transcripts. Once I completed the application process, I heard back quickly – within a week or so, that I had been accepted.
Applying for financial aid after getting that acceptance letter was a completely different story. I had not completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in 25 years and I’m pretty sure my mom helped with that as I was applying to undergrad at UW-Madison. It’s a pretty convoluted process, but I cobbled the paperwork together in order to apply. Because most other scholarships and grants to fund your education require you to have submitted a FAFSA as well.
In any sense, I paid my first tuition bill in August and started my graduate degree program a couple of weeks later. My program is an accelerated degree program, which means I take two 8-week courses back to back each term, along with one in the summer. I have completed four courses toward the ten required of my degree program thus far. Which means, I’m already almost half way there.
So, you may be wondering. How the heck do I do it?
The short answer is, a lot of late nights studying after my son goes to sleep.
Since I work full-time during the day – now from home during this pandemic, I try not to take time away from my son to do schoolwork. That isn’t always possible, of course. Particularly when I have a paper due, which may require me to spend 6-7 hours on a Sunday to write it. However, most nights, after he is tucked in bed, I head back out to our porch where my home office is set up, to spend 2-3 hours studying. It generally amounts to about 12 hours of work per week give or take. Some weeks are lighter and others more intense.
I have several other mom friends who are also continuing their education right now, so I asked them how they make it all work along with what drew them to their particular program.
Bonniejean and Joselyn are both enrolled in UW-Madison’s Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) program, which is a common program for higher education/student affairs professionals. Both work full-time at the UW as well.
Mandy is currently completing her Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Behavior and Leadership (OBL) at Edgewood College and will start the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Change, the same program I’m enrolled in, this summer. Mandy works part time in a home-based project position. However, when she started her program she was working full-time outside of the home.
Bonniejean has a 7-year-old son. Joselyn has three children ranging in age from toddler to teen. And Mandy has two children, a 10-year-old boy and 14-year-old daughter.
Here is what I learned from them:
“There is never a perfect time.
Moms figure it out”
What drew you to your particular program or institution?
MANDY: I was initially drawn to the OBL program because it fit well with my schedule with classes being 8 weeks in length and meeting just once a week in-person in the evening. After doing some research I has hopeful the program would help me gain the skills I wanted to further my career in Human Resources.
BONNIEJEAN: I wanted an in-person option because I think I learn better that way. Turns out I was right. The online transition for me during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult. The program also offered evening classes during the week, which I needed since I work full-time. Finally, I was looking for a program that would be relevant to my role as an administrator in higher ed.
I wasn’t sure whether or not this was the right fit, so I took an introductory course as a special student. I loved it so much, I couldn’t wait to apply to the program. Taking that course also allowed me to develop a relationship with a faculty member who could serve as an academic reference on my formal application.
There was also no testing (GRE) required! This was important for me because I really don’t have time to study for an intense standardized test.
JOSELYN: I worked at UW-Madison for over 10 years. During my time at the UW I met a number of people that I highly respect that graduated from the ELPA program. I had also met some of the faculty, so it just seemed like the best fit. I was so afraid though. I had so much self-doubt and fear about actually getting accepted and what it would look like to go back to school after so many years.
How long were you out of school before going back to complete this degree program?
MANDY: It had been about 10 years. As a mom to a toddler, I took a couple of night classes at Madison College, but I was not in a specific program—simply taking liberal arts transfer classes.
BONNIEJEAN: I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 2002. So 15 years.
JOSELYN: I had been out of school for well over a decade by the time I started.
How long have you been working towards your degree?
MANDY: I started the process of earning my Bachelor’s degree 20 years ago, straight out of high school. But I stopped and started several times. I began the OBL program at Edgewood in August of 2018 and graduate this May!
BONNIEJEAN: I started the program in January 2017. I know this because my son, Oscar, made me a “first day of grad school” sign that currently hangs in my office. I feel like I’ve been in school forever, but that’s because I can really only manage one course per semester.
JOSELYN: I began my ELPA coursework in the Fall of 2016.
What prompted you to go back now?
MANDY: The time just felt right for me to go back. I was succeeding in my professional life, but hit a ceiling because of my lack of formal education. At 12 and 8, my children were at “easier” ages for me to be away some nights. I also just felt ready…It was time to accomplish the goal of earning my Bachelor’s degree!
BONNIEJEAN: In 2015 I was promoted to an Assistant Director role in my office. It was made clear to me that if I had ambitions beyond my current position it would be wise to invest in a Master’s degree. I’d always imagined I would go back to school, so this was the direct prompting I needed. Plus, gender disparities still exist in the workforce. Sometimes women face additional standards and feel pressure to build up their resume in order to compete with our male counterparts for the same positions.
JOSELYN: I always dreamt of going to graduate school and furthering my education. Initially, I had planned to go straight after undergrad, but when I graduated from college I was 5 months pregnant. We had absolutely no money to our names. So graduate school was not an option.
How many classes do you take at a time and what are those classes like?
MANDY: My classes are 8 weeks in length. I typically take 2 classes at a time, each meeting once a week. Classes are from 5:30-9:30 p.m., although I haven’t had a class that went until 9:30 yet. Most end around 8:30 p.m.. When I started in the program the school was just beginning hybrid courses. Many of my classes were solely in person, but I believe that has changed a bit. Class sizes have ranged between 5 and 15 students.
BONNIEJEAN: I take one class at a time. Each class (except for summer school) is 2.5 hours long, once a week. The classes are either from 4:40-7:10 p.m. or 7:15-9:45 p.m.. Each timeslot has its pluses and minuses. I do prefer the earlier one though. My class sizes are around 20 people. Some larger and some smaller. I usually get to know everyone’s name in the class and a little bit about them, which I enjoy.
JOSELYN: I’ve taken one class every semester, except this one, which is my last semester. I’m currently taking 2 classes. We usually have under 30 students per class, and all of my classes have been in-person (with exception to the last two months where everything transitioned online due to COVID-19). Classes are usually about 2 1/2 hours once per week.
How do you balance schoolwork with your other responsibilities, such as work and family? When do you find the time for school on top of everything else?
MANDY: One thing my mom told me, when I asked her how she planned to have a second child, but also applied to my going back to school, was “There is never a perfect time. Moms figure it out”. I am motivated to succeed in all aspects of my life, as a wife, mother, student, and HR professional. I am organized, but also give myself grace when I make a mistake or don’t feel like I am doing enough.
BONNIEJEAN: Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve found the time just yet…just kidding! I have to imagine the fewer children you have, the easier it is. So, I feel grateful, that although I’m taking some time during the week for school, I still feel like I get to spend so much time with my son. All of my extra time is devoted to my husband and son. I usually spend half to most of a weekend day doing my reading and writing. So one evening and one weekend day a week is dedicated to school. Sometimes I’ll take leave from my job too. Like a half-day to work on schoolwork. This relieves some of the weekend pressure. I’m grateful I have good paid leave benefits.
JOSELYN: When I first started grad school my kids were 9 and 13, so I thought to myself it was the “perfect time”. I would soon learn there honestly is no such thing as “perfect timing”. No matter how much we plan, things happen. And no matter what we do, time will pass. It’s up to us to make the most of the time we’ve been given. So my first semester being back in school, my classes started in September and in early November we learned we were expecting our third child.
I was in complete shock and certain there was no way I would be able to do this with a new baby and especially with everything else I had going on. Both of our kids were involved in lots of activities, which kept us really busy after work. I even fell into a brief period of depression.
Every single semester I have faced lots of personal doubt and what seems like challenge upon challenge. If I were to tell you each struggle, I fear you would think I was exaggerating. However, faith, family, and my ability to laugh even through my most difficult moments has been what has kept me going.
I also have an amazing support system. My husband and older children have been my backbone and my motivators. My mom has been my right and left hand. I cannot say enough good things about my mother. I swear she is literally an angel. My siblings have also been there for me. I am so grateful for mi familia. They are my heart. When I graduate this May, it’s not just me completing this milestone. We all did this. This is for my family. For my children. For my parents who came to this country with absolutely nothing. And of course, this is for me – a Latina from Brooklyn.
What advice do you have for other moms looking to go back to school?
MANDY: Do it! You deserve it. Yes, it will be difficult. And you’ll be tired. But it will be worth it! Talk to other mamas that returned to school. And surround yourself with people that believe in you. Above all…believe in yourself! You’ve got this!
BONNIEJEAN: Be passionate about what you are studying. And do it for the right reasons. Set expectations around your time with your boss, your direct reports, your group partners, and most important of all, your family. Plus, be realistic about expectations for yourself.
I took a semester off last year because my husband had open-heart surgery and I convinced myself I’d be able to take two classes last fall to make up for lost time. It was clear when I received the syllabuses for both classes that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Dropping that additional class was much more difficult than I expected. It felt like a humongous failure. But ultimately, I knew that even though I probably could do it, I would be miserable, and would probably hate my job, and the classes, and I would just be no fun to be around.
JOSELYN: I think moms can do anything! If we can handle sleepless fussy babies, headstrong tantrum-prone toddlers, emotional tweens, know-it-all teens, surely we can handle school.
Have a mantra or two that keeps you going. Know how you’re going to finance your education. Have a good support system. Be flexible, and don’t be so hard on yourself. And let others help you. You can do it!
“If we can handle sleepless fussy babies, headstrong tantrum-prone toddlers, emotional tweens, know-it-all teens, surely we can handle school.”
So, as you can see, us four busy mommas are all figuring out ways to make it work. If you are considering going back to school, please know that you can too!
Remember, we are all setting examples for our children. And the examples of hard work, determination, and perseverance you demonstrate in going back to school are excellent ones.