Back to School

If you’ve been out of the workforce for the last five, ten, or more years to concentrate on your marriage and kids, your job skills mayhave become outdated, and you might be thinking about going back to school to retrain. Or maybe you’ve never liked your job and have been dreaming about a career U-turn. You’ll find inspiration from the real-life stories about people who went back to school after their divorce, and found a new life and a more fulfilling career.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the median age of American men at the time of divorce from their first marriage is 33, and for women it’s 31. This is a time when most people are settled in their lives — they probably own a home, have kids, and/or have a stable career. Divorce can initiate some dramatic changes in this lifestyle, however. It makes you re-evaluate yourself and what you’re doing with your life. It may have forced you to realize that the job you’ve had for 20 years wasn’t fulfilling; you only hung on for the money and the insurance benefits for your family. Perhaps you’ve stayed at home all these years taking care of your children while your spouse worked, and now you have a 10-year-old university degree and no work experience to back it up.

Catherine* had been a teacher in Montana for two years when she moved to Chicago to be with the man she would marry. At that time, teaching jobs were scarce, so she settled for office work. “The job wasn’t fulfilling; it just filled a hole,” she says. “My relationship at the time was much more the focus of my life than my career. But that all changed after we separated and eventually divorced.”

Catherine and her husband had had several trial separations over four years. “I was devastated,” she says. “I was in therapy for a couple of years, and that really helped me refocus.” Then she was “very grateful” to find a job as an executive assistant at a small firm. “I was kind of numb — a walking wounded — so I was glad for a nice, safe job that demanded very little of me. I dragged myself to work every day, dragged myself home, and cried. You grieve for your marriage like you do a death, and it takes a long time.” After a while, Catherine started to feel better, and she recognized that the work was simply not challenging enough. “I began to feel bored and trapped,” she says. “Then one day, I had a revelation: I realized that the only thing stopping me from trying something new and exciting was fear. Fear of failure, fear I wouldn’t make it, and fear that I wasn’t good enough. At this point, I was in my mid-30s, and I was terrified. I decided at one point that I had to live the next 40 years of my life anyway, so why not do something creative and important to me? Once I phrased it to myself that way, it was like a door flew open, and I went back to school.”

Overcoming Fears

To be successful at going back to school after separation or divorce, you must carefully consider your emotional status, the time commitment, the level and quality of effort required by the course or program, and your abilities in relation to those issues.

“After divorce, we’re in such a hurry to get our lives back on track,” says Rob Kaufman, a licensed clinical social worker in Encino, CA and founder and executive director of a support group called Divorce Dialogue. As a result, he adds, people tend to make impulsive or radical changes in their lives before they’re emotionally ready. He suggests people take their time — it may take a year or two — to decide if they really want or need to return to school.

Northwestern Business College in Chicago helps students deal with the fears associated with going back to school with a required, first-quarter class called “College Success.” The course addresses study skills, time management, stress management, financial resources, managing relationships, and tapping into college and community resources.

“It has been my experience,” says Jill Ahlswede, a counselor at Northwestern Business College’s main campus in Chicago, “that the majority of students returning to school following a life transition, such as divorce, are often struggling to regain a sense of control in their lives and often feel conflicted about fulfilling all their responsibilities and commitments.” She adds that 35% of the College’s enrollment are returning students.

You can ease any anxiety you may have if you stop thinking that going back to school means immediately shipping yourself off to Harvard University for a Ph.D. (unless, of course, that’s what you really want to do). Sometimes, anxiety can blow your anticipation out of proportion — “especially if you had a previous negative experience,” says Dr. Philip Morvitz, a licensed psychologist in private practice in Brooklyn, NY. “It becomes a bigger obstacle than the actual situation,” he says.

Take it one step at a time; there’s no deadline. Think about what you like to do or what you’ve always wanted to do, and how you can do it with as little stress as possible. Will it require a full-time program to learn the skills you need, or will you only need to take a few night courses? And if you don’t know what you want to do with the rest of your life, a career counselor can point you in the right direction — and let you know what steps to take to achieve your goal. Career counseling can be helpful for those already in, as well as those returning to, the workforce. Your separation or divorce may have affected your standard of living, and a career counselor can help you decide if you need to upgrade your skills in order to increase your salary-earning potential.

Becoming competitive

If you’re looking for a new career, most of the work available these days involves computers. Vincent Norton, vice president of enrollment services at Robert Morris College’s main campus in Chicago, says enrolment in the College’s computer systems programs is growing rapidly to meet the demands of today’s job market. These courses aren’t just basic Microsoft Office courses: they cover topics such as Windows NT, Novell Netware, and Quark XPress, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator — programs used extensively in the graphic and website design fields.

To help jump-start your new career, many community colleges offer job placement services after you complete your program. And some offer internship programs, which allow you to gain valuable on-the-job experience before you graduate. An internship can make you more marketable when you start applying for jobs, or it could turn into a full-time job later.

Choosing a new career

If you’re considering a new career path, take this opportunity to design your own future. It’s fine to seek advice from friends or family, but don’t let them pressure you into doing what they think you should be doing. It’s your life, so make choices that will empower and enrich you rather than blindly following someone else’s plans for your life. Truly taking responsibility for how your life works out can be very scary, but it’s the surest route to happiness and self-fulfillment.

You may feel that you’re too old to start something new in your life, but consider Bill’s story: At 54, he started a brand new life after his divorce from his second wife, and now at 59, has a new and fulfilling career.

Bill* was a restaurant manager for 19 years, and had gone back to college part-time during that time in hopes of increasing his chances for finding a new job that related to the food industry. “I thought a new job should be tied into what I did because it was too late in life to totally change jobs,” he says.

The stress of his divorce in 1992 had left him too ill to continue his restaurant job. After seeking psychological counseling and living on disability insurance for almost two years, Bill talked to a career counselor at a local community college. He realized that it wasn’t too late in life to switch careers, and decided to enroll in a two-year medical records technology program. No more late nights at the restaurant and coming home with grease stains on his tie. Bill is now very happy with his new career as the supervising manager of the medical records department at one of the largest hospitals in his city.

Working hard

To say that going back to school isn’t easy would be an understatement. Catherine describes her experience with a radio broadcasting program at a community college: “I was in school full-time for nine months. It was the most intense work I’ve ever done — much more intense than getting my undergraduate and post- graduate degrees. When you’re in school at 37, it’s very different than when you’re 20. There’s no beer drinking; there’s no hanging around. It’s all business. I was very focused, and I’m sure that my maturity was what led me to be so successful. I wasn’t there to mess around; I was there to work.”

Bill had a similar experience. “You don’t have a personal life,” he admits. “You go to school, go to work, and go home to study, and that’s it. For two years, I didn’t really do anything else. You really need to spend that time on working and studying. It’s really tiring physically.”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed — or think you will be — talk to a school counselor, who can tell if you’re eligible to get credit for your real-life experiences (which could cut down on your course requirements) or refer you to other helpful services at the college or in your community. Ahlswede says that taking advantage of these and other services “plays a substantial role in students’ satisfaction and success with the college experience.”

There’s something else you can do to reduce stress: “Don’t overload yourself,” recommends Carol Blauw Smith, counselor and director of Crossroads, an organization in Schaumburg, IL that helps people learn new coping skills, increase their self-esteem, and set new life-enhancing goals. She recommends that you take one class at a time, if necessary. “It may take you longer to complete your degree,” she says, “but you won’t feel as stressed out.” Blauw Smith speaks from personal experience: after her own divorce, she went back to school to earn her master’s degree in counseling.

Time may be easier for you to manage if you consider enrolling in a program such as The Weekend College at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, where classes for its two accredited bachelor’s degree programs are spread out over 18 non-consecutive weekends per year.

Finding emotional support

It’s very important to have a support network cheering you on while you’re in school. You’ll need encouraging words from friends, family, and — most importantly — yourself to help you through.

“I got a ton of support from friends and family,” Catherine says. “I was also very motivated to do it.” There were many days, however, when she was worn out — she had to ride the bus for three hours to and from campus every day — and she had a very low income at the time. Catherine says, “People kept saying ‘You’ve got guts,’ but I didn’t feel like I had guts. I just felt driven. I had to grab this chance, or I’d play it safe for the rest of my life, and I didn’t want to do that.”

What kept Bill going? “Sheer determination,” he says. “When you’re truly convinced that this is what you want to do, that will keep you going. If you’re not truly convinced, it’s really easy to drop out. I set a goal for myself and worked towards it. You have to be focused on your goal.”

Encouragement from your fellow students and teachers also helps to keep you motivated. “When you’re with people doing the same thing that you all love, you get such a groove going,” Catherine notes. “Our faculty enjoys people with a broad spectrum of experience,” says Peter Awn, the dean of Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where the students’ ages range from late 20s to early 40s. “Instead of feeling like they’re the oldest in their class,” he adds, “students find that they become a real asset in the classroom.”

Your emotional support network goes beyond your teachers and classmates. Prepare your family, friends, and even your ex-spouse for your decision to take classes. Tell them what kind of changes you anticipate, and how that may impact upon them. Ask yourself what you’ll need from them while pursuing your education, then ask for their help and support.

Payment options

If you qualify, you could receive financial assistance from a variety of sources. It’s best to talk to the financial aid office of the schools you’re considering and ask them what kind of financial assistance programs are available at their institution.

Another resource is the United States Department of Education’s The Student Guide, which outlines the major Student Financial Assistance (SFA) Programs: Federal Pell Grant, Stafford Loans, PLUS Loans, Consolidation Loans, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs), Federal Work-Study, and Federal Perkins Loans. According to the Guide, some schools don’t participate in these financial-aid programs, and some programs are restricted to either undergraduate or graduate students.

Many people — particularly women — also seek financial assistance for retraining or going back to school through their divorce settlement. If it isn’t too late, talk to your lawyer about including that in your separation agreement.

Class dismissed

Going back to school is an exciting transition in your life with many important factors to consider. Juggling work, school, and taking care of your children (if you have any) won’t be easy, but you have the power to do it without tearing your hair out. Just remember why you wanted to upgrade your skills: self-fulfillment, happiness, financial security, self-confidence — there are many reasons to go back to school.

Catherine, who is now a radio announcer for a major market radio station, offers these words of encouragement: “My advice is what Joseph Campbell said: ‘Follow your bliss.’ Choose something that makes you joyous from inside then the opportunities will come to you. If you’ve always wanted to be a hairdresser or woodworker, take classes. Do a little bit at a time; you don’t have to completely immerse yourself. It can be such fun, and it expands your heart. You get so much positive feedback that your self-esteem just flowers. Whether or not you make a big career out of it, or whether or not you make a lot of money, you should have fun. Finally, at 39, I feel like I’m where I should be. And that’s a wonderful feeling.”

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