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Improvising a back-to-school life

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

By Lee Lawrence Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2001



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.

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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.

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