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Suzanne T. JacksonLessons Learned: Seven Tips for Returning to College

by Suzanne T. Jackson

Boy, I had no idea what I was getting in to when I decided to go back to school. With high school really only a mere four years behind me, I wasn't totally out of my league yet. New aspirations of becoming a nursing student filled my head with images of white uniforms, clipboards, and lasting friendships with people with M.D. after their names. Was I that blind, or was I just that naive?

My application to the local private college went without a hitch. Just about anyone could have downloaded an application from the school's website, or even more conveniently, could have driven to campus and picked up one. Most all colleges and universities have simple application procedures offered to just about anyone who has a pen, the ability to write, and a $25 application fee. Luckily, these were all qualities I possessed. I was already acting like a college student. I was accepted within months and there began my journey through registration.

The one major thing I can't stress enough to new college students is: Get yourself an advisor. Do not, I repeat, do not try to figure out a 210-page handbook on your own. I guarantee your brain with be sizzling within minutes. My advisor was helpful, knowledgeable, and gave great advice. She knew that I worked full-time during the day, and didn't have a lot of time to think about what classes I would need to successfully graduate with my major. I was directed on how to obtain financial aid, where to take my class registration papers, and even where to park on campus to avoid useless charges!

Now, I can't speak for all colleges and universities, but night classes are very "older student friendly". More than half of the students are over the age of 30 and work a full-time job. I was totally in my element there. Only a handful of traditional students were in my classes, and their looks of horror always spoke volumes of their minority.

After a year, I changed to daytime classes with a full-time schedule. This was a completely different world. The lines for registration were longer with traditional generation x-ers that could smell an older student a mile away. When I left the safe haven of my night-time advisor, I also found that the daytime advisors were scarred by the countless years of attitude, whinyness, and blank stares. With the day classes also came twice as many classmates. I found myself always being the oldest, and the one closest to my professor’s age.

This time in college brought some important lessons. After six years (including undergoing a major change from nursing to communications), I graduated with a B.A. in Communication. To help other returning students save time and avoid common pitfalls, I've outlined seven tips.

  1. Always get a student handbook and read it BEFORE you apply to a college. The college student handbook provides details of the range of services and support available to students as well as the school's educational policies and regulations. The handbook is also often available online from the college Web site.
  2. Get to know the environment you are going to be a part of before you sign the financial aid application dotted line. Spend time exploring the campus, attend a campus orientation, or view virtual campus tours.
  3. Understand the withdrawal rules and regulations before registering for classes, have an idea of campus study and/or tutoring resources, and use them!
  4. Professors, faculty and staff members will be more than happy to help you if you sincerely express a need for their assistance and advice. These are people who have been with the institution for some time and understand the rules and regulations.
  5. Make sure you completely understand your financial aid award, and any student loan percentage rates and payback requirements. All questions can be easily answered through the financial aid office on campus. If you learn that you will only receive partial aid when you assumed you would receive full aid, you may find, weeks into a course, that you can't afford to pay to continue your studies.
  6. Always have one advisor that you trust, and meet with them at least once a month per semester. Make sure they are aware of your goals and discuss all your options.
  7. The absolute golden rule of going back to school: Enjoy your experience! You came back because you wanted to be more important in the workforce, have more knowledge to advance in your field, or because it was something you always dreamed of achieving for personal satisfaction.

The latter was my driving force, and after six years and two majors, I am proud of my achievements, and so is my family. Instead of working a job that I hate, I'm now doing what I enjoy! Be informed, be aware, and make the most of “your” college years.

Suzanne attained her B.A. in December and is a stay-at-home mother and a freelance writer. Writing has been a passion of hers since she was fourteen.

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