Improvising a back-to-school life

Adults in pursuit of degrees find different ways to blend study with relationships and jobs

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Four years ago, after having "had about every job you can do without a college degree," Nicole Cucinotta decided that more than anything else, she wanted to teach.

Before she could take charge of an elementary school classroom, though, she knew she'd have to go back to class herself. When she enrolled in Camden County College near Philadelphia, Mrs. Cucinotta didn't expect to like it. "I thought I was going to have to shove myself through," she says. But now she's become addicted to studying, and works hard to juggle the demands of marriage, a job, school, and motherhood.

The United States Department of Education projects that some 6.2 million people over age 25 will enroll in colleges and universities this year, up from 5.9 million in 1998. The majority of them (4.5 million) will attend part time.

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Adults returning to school face myriad challenges, from raising money for tuition to finding suitable child care and making time for family. Rather than following a formula, each one who takes the plunge has to tailor an approach that fits his or her priorities. It may be an intensive, full-time study blitz or a long stretch of multitasking. But either way, the experience often means a mix of sacrifices and unexpected rewards.

When she first returned to school, Cucinotta's goals were to continue to earn money and spend meaningful time with her husband, Dean. So she chose a flexible program at a local community college - no lengthy commute, no high tuition. She alternates classroom work with online courses and the occasional self-paced videotaped course.

When she worked full time, she limited herself to two classes a term. After taking time off when her daughter, Gianna, was born last April, she eased back into academics. "The class I'm taking now is noncredit," she says, "because I didn't know how I was going to manage my time."

Cucinotta gets up at 7 a.m. to do housework and pay bills while Gianna sleeps; when the baby goes down for her nap, Cucinotta hits the books. She also works two evenings a week in a restaurant while Dean cares for Gianna, and spends two afternoons teaching arts and crafts at an after-school program where she can bring her baby. During the summer, she provides child care for a family that works around her class schedule.

At this pace, it would take Cucinotta four more years to complete her bachelor's degree. To speed things along, she says she's "revving up to apply to the McBride program" for nontraditional-age students at Bryn Mawr, a nearby women's college. If accepted, she will quit work and depend on grants and loans.

Work, school, or both?

Brian Keane opted for a speedier approach from the start. The New York actor wanted to become a licensed psychotherapist, and because he had no family responsibilities, he quit work and enrolled full time at the School of Social Work at New York University (NYU).

As for covering living expenses, he found that serendipity can go a long way. A friend had a brownstone apartment he was planning to gut, Mr. Keane explains, "and he needed someone to keep an eye on it until work started." This meant Keane could live rent-free for the year and a half it took to complete his degree.

To keep up with tuition, Keane availed himself of "every scholarship or grant that came up at the university," and supplemented these with federal loans.

Schools' financial aid offices stand at the ready to put together aid packages. If studies are job-related, employers may be willing to chip in. If not, a good place to inquire is the Federal Student Aid Information Center of the US Department of Education (1-800-4FED-AID or www.ed.gov/prog_info/SFA).

For many, Cucinotta's approach is too protracted, Keane's too radical. Marian Masone did not want to quit work, yet she wanted to earn a master's degree within a reasonable amount of time. Her solution was to work full time and attend school part time, in order to complete the program in three years.

"Most classes were in the evening, but occasionally I had day classes," she says. "But these were not a problem with my boss: She knew I could just come back to the office and work late."

It helped that Ms. Masone works at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and was getting a master's in film.

Carving out time for relationships

One thing Masone did have to sacrifice was her social life. She did not date while in school, and when she took a break it was usually a busman's holiday: She went to the movies. But she was not willing to let family life go by the wayside. She lives with her sister and takes an active part in helping raise a niece and nephew, who were preteens at the time.

"We always sat down together to eat when we could," Masone says. "Because I was studying film and not something like accounting, there was always an entry point for discussion."

Not all subjects are such easy conversation starters, especially with children. But, for relationships not to suffer, people find it important to find ways to share what they are learning.

One student who temporarily relocated to another state for graduate work says her boyfriend makes it a point to read books she is assigned. Others use spouses as sounding boards or, as Cucinotta does, enlist their help in prepping for tests, proofreading papers, and discussing the week's reading. "As a result," Cucinotta says, "I've had different kinds of conversations with Dean. We've discovered a whole new part of each other."

Some students, however, prefer to keep school a separate endeavor. "The constant balancing act is horrible," says Tony Neuron, a systems librarian who lives with his wife and two teenage children in Roanoke, Va. Mr. Neuron is earning a master's in library science, but instead of "stealing driblets of time from my family," he finds it easier to remove himself for a month or a week at a time to attend daily eight-hour courses at Syracuse University in New York.

This option includes the costs of transportation and lodging. And "taking six weeks out of life is very hard for those who have jobs and family," says Amanda Cockerell, director of an intensive summer graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke. Some participants commute home on weekends, some delegate child care to spouses and grandparents, and some even bring their children along, placing older ones in a nearby day camp and finding baby sitters for the younger ones.

Taking risks to pursue a dream

For Valerie Patterson, a government lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area who recently registered for this summer's session at Hollins, the difficulty lies elsewhere. Her desire to someday publish a young-adult novel (or two, or three) is highly unlawyerly and, although her superiors have been supportive of her taking leave, she says, "I still worry that I'll be seen as less serious and that I won't get my next promotion, which is a big one and a very subjective one."

This does not deter her, however. To pursue a long-held passion, Ms. Patterson is willing to take that risk and to commute, redirect savings, take courses during the year, and accept that her husband may never fully approve of her decision. And if she never publishes a novel? "I will not regret it," she says. "Any learning you do in something that you love is not wasted."

Try to keep the balancing act realistic

As a professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, Lauren Raiken has advised many a returning student.

His first piece of advice is to have realistic expectations.

"If a person is engaged in many areas of life as a parent and a professional, two courses is the maximum he or she should take," he says.

Professor Raiken has found that returning adults "have usually forgotten the amount of work going to school entails, and what it's like to write a paper."

While most students find ways to balance their various responsibilities, he adds, trying to do too much at once can be

dangerous to the quality of learning. "Students find they want to spend more time on campus, at the library or talking with professors and fellow students, but they have to get back to their families or jobs," he says.

This is a frustration few expect, but equally unexpected is the feeling adult students get when they devote themselves to their studies.

"This gives them an intense pleasure," Raiken observes, "because it is something they have chosen to do." And, in his experience, whether the degree is career-related or for personal enrichment, the excitement is the same. After all, people choose their career for a reason.

Whether the degree is career-related or for personal enrichment, the excitement is the same.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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