When Melanie Deveault returned to school at age 36 to pursue a master’s degree in museum studies, she was nervous, to say the least.
“I was a teacher in a previous job, so I was comfortable with being in class,” the Montreal resident explains. “But this time the roles would be reversed – I’d be the student. So I was pretty anxious. Would they see me as this weird old lady?”
In-class awkwardness isn’t the only challenge faced by so-called mature students, however.
“When you’re in school as an adult, the things you may feel compelled to do at that stage of life – get married, buy a house, have kids – have to get put in limbo,” says Tenniel Rock, manager of counselling and student well-being at George Brown College in Toronto.
Even so, Rock sees more mature students on the George Brown campus these days than she used to. Reasons for returning to school are diverse, naturally, but often boil down to a desire for a better career, higher pay – or simply to be exposed to new ideas.
If you’re considering making the jump from employee to student, here are 4 simple strategies that will help you manage and even enjoy your return to class.
1. Get all the facts before you decide
If you’re struggling with the question of whether to go back to school at all, Rock has a suggestion: Write an old-fashioned pro and con list.
But don’t stop there. “Also write out the things you’d need support with while you’re in school, plus the resources you have and what you can draw on,” she adds.
“If there are a lot of cons on your list and you find you'll need a lot of support, now may not be the best time [to go back to school]. If you can manage to strike some of those cons off of the list, then maybe it is your time.”
2. Bring your employer on board
Like many adult students, Deveault kept working while in school. This not only helped fund her studies, but also actually enhanced her relationship with her employer.
“Make your employer an ally,” she says. “I had just started a job at a museum when I began the program, so I showed them how they'd benefit from it. I also came up with solutions, taking night courses whenever possible and making up the hours I missed when I had to be in class during the day.”
There may even be financial support at work: Some employers will help pay for job-related courses, if you complete them successfully.
3. Explore the available resources
If working while you're in school isn’t an option, consider the Lifelong Learning Plan, which allows you to withdraw from your registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) for full-time studies.
Under the LLP, you can withdraw a total of $20,000, with a $10,000 limit per calendar year. You then have up to 10 years to put the money back in your RRSP, paying back at least 10% of the amount you borrowed per year. (See the Canada Revenue Agency rules for full details on repayments.)
You should also visit your school’s financial-aid office and inquire about scholarships and bursaries. “Often,” Rock says, “applying for a scholarship only requires that you write an essay.”
Another option often overlooked by adult students? Taking a job on campus.
“Many people think on-campus jobs are only for younger students, but that’s not true,” Rock advises. “(As someone who has been in the workforce, your) experience makes you a more attractive candidate, and the beauty of on-campus jobs is that they work with your schedule.”.
4. Involve your family
Throughout your studies, keep your family in the loop. Be honest with them about both the benefits of your return to school and the limits it necessarily places on your free time.
When making your schedule, Rock suggests reserving at least one afternoon per weekend for family and friends.
“You will have to do homework on the weekends. That’s just a fact of life for adult students,” she says. “And your family will still complain that they don’t get enough of you. But if there’s regular time set aside, they’ll at least be able to plan.”
Fitting in is not as hard as you think
So what became of Deveault’s fear of being in a class with younger students?
As it turns out, her experience made her more popular. “The other students knew I was a former teacher, so they wanted to work with me because they knew I wouldn’t mess around,” she says. “I didn’t expect that.”
Finally, if you’re still on the fence about returning to school, consider these words from Rock: “I’ve spoken to adult students who thought they wouldn’t make it. And I’ve helped support them to graduation. There’s nothing like seeing people achieve their goals and view themselves in a new, more confident light.”
Her advice? “If you’ve always wanted to go back to school, pursue it.”