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Jodie, who just got laid off from her job as a bank teller, is returning to college to finish her bachelor's degree after quitting college nearly two decades ago due to the birth of her son, Jake. Now, eighteen years later, Jake has graduated from high school and is enrolled in college. Although it is a financial risk for her and her family, Jodie feels this is the best time to complete the college degree that she had once started. However, finances are not her main worry about going back to school. Now that she is 45, she is more worried about whether or not she belongs in college. When she thinks of college life, she thinks of her son and his friends studying together or going out for pizza after class things she could not see other college students inviting her to do. Besides not looking like the typical college student, she is worried about how this change will affect her relationship with her husband, how she will be able to juggle going to school full- time while maintaining both a job part-time and her homemaker responsibilities.
Today, our society is seeing more and more people like Jodie change their careers as adults and decide to go back to college. Reasons are mainly due to downsizing at work, learning skills that will help gain a promotion or wanting to go back to education after years of taking care of their families and homes ("Non-traditional Student," 2004). It is no longer uncommon to see adults scattered in a classroom of young students who have just graduated high school. Although non-traditional students may seem wise, mature and like they have it all together, do not be fooled; they are going through just as much stress and anxiety, maybe more, as the traditional students as they are also striving to adapt to the new college experience. The different stressors that lead to the anxiety of an adult going back to school, the reasons behind the stressors, and the techniques used to calm the anxiety are discussed in this paper.
Anxiety, particularly generalized anxiety disorder, is characterized by exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it ("Generalized Anxiety Disorder," n.d.). This is the type of anxiety that most adults experience when they decide to go back to school. They expect the worst to happen before even trying it. They often worry about unrealistic misconceptions that are drawn out of proportion ("GAD," n.d.). Several common misconceptions include: college is only for bright people, you have to be young to go to college, you have to have a lot of free time and money to go to college, and you will be neglecting your family when you go to college (Bruno, 2001). Other worries non-traditional students have that are not necessarily misconceptions include: time-management, finances, tests, and studying. It is more difficult for adults who are going to school while working part-time to pay bills and trying to find a baby sitter who can watch three kids, while on top of that trying to find time to study for tomorrow's exam. No wonder adults in this situation experience anxiety. However, there are techniques, support groups and assistance from schools that make it possible for non-traditional students to ease their anxiety so they can successfully make it through college living a less stressful life.
Believe it or not, non-traditional students usually have the upper hand over traditional students in the classroom. Non-traditional students who have been out either a couple years or even a couple decades probably have taken the time to reflect on what they want out of life and how college can help them achieve it. Since they are most likely financing their own education, chances are they will want to benefit from every dollar they spend by showing up at every class, ready to squeeze every drop of wisdom possible from their professors and fellow classmates (Bellesi, 2009). Therefore, the misconception of "adults do not belong in college" should be eliminated because they tend to be the best students since they are usually highly motivated. Misconceptions only act as barriers to realizing your potential as a student and human being (Bruno, 2001). There is normally a large maturity gap between the traditional and non-traditional student. Traditional students usually have a support group at home where they are influenced to go to college by their parents and they are less likely to pay bills, have children, and a job. Most of the time their social life competes with their academic work (Simon, 2002). On the flip side, non-traditional students normally have had a job, had children, and had to pay bills. These life experiences have given them considerable strengths that they can use toward their education (Simon, 2002). Such as the ability to juggle many activities at once, experience in meeting deadlines, experience in working collaboratively, and experience in recognizing the complexities of problems (Simon, 2002). By applying these abilities as a student, it can give them a slight edge over the traditional student. Therefore, time management, critical thinking, and communication skills should be some strengths for adults, which in turn should ease some of their anxieties and eliminate possible misconceptions.
The issue that creates the most stress and anxiety for an adult student is if they have a family that depends on them. Some families are understanding and supportive of the adult going back to school while others tend to make the adult feel guilty that they are hurting the family financially and as a whole. Hollis Colby, a former student, talks about how to handle a similar situation, "First, you must accept your decision to return to school and make it a part of your life. Second, this helps others accept the fact that there will be certain times when you need to do things that do not involve them, like studying. It is not always easy to make time decisions, but it gets easier as you go. You need to be assertive with them that way they understand. You can generate that sense of understanding by sharing your experiences" (Simon, 2002, p. 6). Even though family can interfere with college, they are also necessary for success. They are your greatest source for emotional support (Bruno, 2001).
When adult students develop high anxiety due to all the stressors, sometimes they need to step away and look at the big picture. Stress is inevitable, but it can be managed. Several things that can be done to manage stress include: being realistic, saying no, trying relaxation techniques, exercising, and finding a support system (Simon, 2002). Adult students need to be realistic and realize that they cannot be perfectionists by setting impossibly high standards for themselves in college. With as many obligations that they already have, things go wrong and create setbacks. So it is important to understand that what can go wrong, will go wrong. Saying no to family and friends is also important, unless it is an emergency. If a friend asks you to go out one night when you have an exam the next day, you must say no to what is least important to you. Finding relaxation techniques such as meditation, imagery, or even art can help reduce stress. Starting a routine exercise program can also be beneficial. A very important way to manage stress is to create a support system. Whether it is a counselor or advisor at school, a friend or teacher from class, a baby sitter or a family member, discussing problems or looking for advice from them can cut down on anxiety levels. Lastly, goal setting is an important way to manage stress. It might seem like a long road for adults to earn a college degree, but once they achieve each goal along the way they can cross it out (Simon, 2002). This helps reduce anxiety because they can see how far they have come by looking at what goals they have accomplished.
While researching this topic we found a fun and interesting method that a nursing instructor in Virginia used for her new students. Basically, a packed brown bag, "luggage", was given to her students as an ice-breaker for "the road to a successful journey in nursing"(Worrell, 2005). Inside the bags were inexpensive items such as a calendar, rubber band, penny, paper clip, an eraser, pen, tissues, chocolate kisses, party horn and a candle. Each item represented different qualities or strategies to provide for a good semester, and hopefully a successful education in nursing.
The calendar represents the importance of time management, a reminder that time is a precious resource and to make the most of your time. The rubber band is for flexibility. Sometimes the rubber band is stretched gently, like when we have to give a little, and sometimes it is stretched wide, like when we have to give a lot. It is also a reminder that we may need to lower our expectations for a perfectly clean house or nightly home cooked meals. The penny represents the management of money as the extra cost of transportation to clinical sites and the extra lunch money will be needed. The paper clip is for organization, which includes a quiet place to study that is clutter-free. The eraser is for the mistakes we will make. It is important that we learn from them, correct them, and move on.
The ink pen is a reminder to do the "write" thing, that is, our own work. In nursing, we will all be expected to be trusted with others' lives so we must be trustworthy. Tissues are for the tears that will be shed as nursing is not an easy profession, as well as for the tears of anger, frustration, sorrow, and ultimately for the joy of achieving our goal. Remembering to smile and laugh is also crucial. We must love ourselves, believe in ourselves, and encourage ourselves with positive talk. Laughter is known to be some of the best medicine to decrease pain, minimize stress, and serve as a positive outlet for negatives in our life. Chocolate kisses are a reminder that we all need love and support. The key is to find a support system. The party horn is to make time for fun. Lastly, the candle is a reminder to keep our eyes on the prize.
While the choice to return to school for adults is a difficult and stressful process, it does not have to create anxiety to the point where it hinders a student's normal lifestyle or performance in school. Although non-traditional students normally live busier lifestyles, remember the ways to prevent anxiety from developing, such as using time-management, relaxation techniques, and support groups. Understanding that non-traditional students do belong in the same classroom as traditional students and that most of the stressors are misconceptions can also help reduce the anxiety. Most importantly, look at the big picture and know that it will all be worth it in the end. Everyone who is accepted to college is capable of earning a college degree. It just takes perseverance, persistence, and determination.