by Mandi Em
When my son was 3 years old, I decided to go back to school to get a degree. As a 22-year-old high school dropout and single parent at the time, I was an unlikely candidate for higher education. However, I was able to make it work, and I am so grateful that I did. The hard work was worth it, and the bonus was that the whole experience was not nearly as difficult as I had assumed it would be.
When I was a teenager I ended up only partially completing grade 11. At 19, I gave birth to a baby boy and didn’t put much thought into not having a high school diploma. A few years later, I separated from my son’s father and realized that my lack of options when it came to employability was an issue. I was in a “starting over” phase of life, and realized that getting an education was the best choice for me, so I could ensure a better future for my son and I.
I enrolled in college and completed some assessment testing to be able to sign up for classes. At this point, I was trying not to invest too much thought into what my end goal was. Instead, I was quite literally taking it one day at a time, trying to complete any schooling I could to include it on a resume that was mainly built on customer service.
The biggest challenge that I faced when I went back to school as a parent was at the intersection of childcare and money. Most parents are familiar with the struggle of needing to have childcare to make money, however, it costs money to pay for that childcare. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Living in the Lower Mainland where daycare and living costs are so high, this was even more difficult.
As far as finances went, it was hard but not impossible. I took out student loans and applied for every grant and bursary available. I spent many hours filling out forms in the financial aid office, where they urged me to apply for everything, especially because many financial awards go unclaimed. I maintained good grades (which helped me land scholarships) and was eligible for many grants and bursaries geared towards niche groups such as women, single parents, and older students. I got a part-time job within the college as a tutor and student assistant, and was able to fit it in classes while my son was still at daycare.
The biggest asset I had when it came to my return-to-school experience was ambition. I went to school with driven students, but I also shared the classroom with students that were there for fun, to fill time, or to keep their parents happy. My drive came from wanting to have an easier life for my son and I. And truthfully, if my drive wavered, I had the sense to see that I was in it– collecting debt, paying for childcare, and losing time with him while he was small. As a parent and older student I simply couldn’t afford to screw around.
I managed to complete a 4-year Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology in approximately 5 years. I didn’t take summers off in favour of having a reduced year-round course load. By the end of my degree, it felt like collapsing at the finish line of a marathon. I would be lying if I said I didn’t look at my son, who was no longer a tiny one and feel guilty for the things I missed. But I accomplished my goal, and showed him the value of education and working hard to reach your goals.
After completing school I briefly worked for the school district as an educational assistant, and then went on to manage a program for developmentally-disabled adults. I’ve had many professional opportunities arise as a result of obtaining my degree. I’m currently working as a freelance writer to stay home with my kids, and even this has become easier because of my experiences in school.
Although going to school as a parent and high school dropout was hard, I have zero regrets and feel that had it happened any differently I wouldn’t have had the success I did. I needed it to be a struggle to take it seriously, and I needed the pressure of my life circumstances at the time to keep me moving.
5 Tips for Going Back to School As A Parent
1) Apply for financial aid.
Spend some time at the financial aid office learning about what your options are and apply for everything you are eligible for.
2) Check out Student Services.
The student services office has resources for students, and you might find support available there that you wouldn’t ordinarily know exists.
3) Be upfront with your professors.
Lead with the fact that you are a parent and returning student. This open communication will be an asset should you need a deadline extension or to miss classes due to your parenting responsibilities.
4) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you have friends or family who can help, it never hurts to ask. This can be as simple as watching your child for a couple of hours so you can study.
5) Go slow.
There is no need to set any records here. If you need to drop a class or take a semester off, weigh all the pros and cons. It can be stressful to juggle everything so it’s best not to overdo it and make things even harder on yourself.