How busy professionals are striving to better themselves via more education while balancing it all.
When it comes to education, there generally are three types of people: those who don’t go to college, those who do and obtain an undergraduate degree for their own edification or at the behest of Mom and Dad, and those who are never satisfied with the status quo and revisit the collegiate world throughout their working years.
Those falling into the latter category often find themselves feeling unsatisfied in certain jobs, especially when there is little to no advancement potential. They find themselves starved for intellectual stimulation, with the personal ambition and drive to constantly do and be more. These are the individuals who after spending some time in the workplace decide to go back to school to obtain a graduate degree.
This can be a daunting proposition because many graduate degree hopefuls are at a point in their lives when they already have significant obligations to employers and their burgeoning families. Yet 21 percent of bachelor’s degree holders and 12 percent of post-graduate degree holders said they plan to resume their educational career, according to a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center.
The same study showed that interest in going back to school varies across specialties. Those with degrees in social science, liberal arts, and education were the most likely to return to school (40 percent), while engineering majors (28 percent) and science majors (23 percent) were less likely.
Craving Mental Stimulation
Susan Jeffords, vice chancellor for academic affairs at UW Bothell, said teaching master’s degree students who actively choose to be in the classroom is one of the best experiences an educator can have.
“Graduate students are people who are highly motivated,” she said. “(These students) have plans; they have aspirations; and boy, there is nothing better in the world than to teach students who come to class with this kind of energy, commitment, and passion for learning.”
Parisa Tsutsumi certainly fell into this category in 2016, when she returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in nursing. She was 27 years old; newly married; and working full-time as a nurse at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, where she helped leukemia and lymphoma patients recover from bone marrow transplant surgery.
“I kind of missed school and the mental stimulation of learning something new,” Tsutsumi said. “After two years of working on the floor as a nurse, I don’t want to say you reach a maximum, but you kind of become very proficient at your job, and there’s really no more challenges left.”
After earning dual bachelor’s degrees — one in biology from UW Seattle, the other in nursing from Seattle University — Tsutsumi chose UW Bothell because of its accommodations for working professionals. The entire nursing program, for example, holds its weekly classes on Friday nights. And like many schools nationwide, much of the coursework can be done in a hybrid format — a mix of both online and in-person learning — at the student’s own leisure, with fewer requirements for face-to-face classes on campus.
“The reason we went to this hybrid format with an online component was actually because of the students,” Vice Chancellor Jeffords said. “They asked if there was some piece of this program that they could do online so they could have an in-person experience and still have the flexibility of not having to come to campus (all the time) to pursue their degrees.”
Still, moving the classroom to cyberspace wasn’t an easy transition for some faculty members. “So many of us went to school not taking classes in those kinds of formats,” Jeffords said. “Rather than telling faculty to go give it a try, we’ve given people (in advance of the start of their class) this workshop, which goes on for many months while they actually develop materials for their programs.”
Despite the growing pains, Tsutsumi and many of her peers benefit from the added flexibility. This was especially true after the birth of Tsutsumi’s son, who arrived two weeks late by emergency C-section and was only days old when Tsutsumi was due to start a new quarter.
“I remember this professor — she was amazing — she said, ‘If you want to do this, that’s fine. But if you don’t want to do this, that’s fine, too,’” Tsutsumi recalled, still amazed by her professor’s empathy and understanding. “For some reason, that clicked with me, and I just sat in the class and started crying.”
Tsutsumi decided to take the quarter off and dial down her hours at the hospital. Three months later, she returned to academia. When she was present on campus, Tsutsumi said, her professor and the other adult students in her class were more than understanding about her situation, even going so far as to accommodate her use of a breast pump with a cover in the back of the room during lessons.
“The professor was a mom — she had a baby during her doctoral program — so she was like, ‘Do your thing, fine by me,’” Tsutsumi said. “(In an adult program) your professors are going to be supportive; you just have to tell them what you need.”
Tsutsumi finished the requirements for her master’s degree program in December. She said she and her husband also hope to grow their family this year while she continues working at the hospital. Once her children have reached school age, Tsutsumi plans to put her new degree to use by teaching future generations of nurses.
“Doing patient care is really rewarding, but it is also really challenging,” she explained. “I don’t want to be 50 and still doing direct patient care. I have always wanted to become a nurse educator. I want to go back to Seattle University (where she got her second undergraduate degree) or a smaller school and teach.”
From a Kayak to College
At UW Bothell, approximately 50 percent of undergraduate students are first-generation students who are the first in their families to attend college. These students are graduating at the same or better rates than those of their peers who come from families with a history of going to college. This is much higher than in other parts of the country, where first-generation students frequently have much lower graduation rates.
“(We are trying to) get more people, who may not come from a background of expecting to go to college, into the pipeline to go to college and then be successful when they get there,” Vice Chancellor Jeffords said. “For a lot of first-time college attendees, there is a lot of anxiety about fitting in: Do I belong there? Can I be successful there? Our campus is gaining a reputation where people are having really positive experiences, where they realize they do belong and they can be successful.”
Haliehana Stepetin is one of UW Bothell’s first-generation students. She grew up in a rural Alaskan village in the Aleutian Islands, where she learned to live off the land by hunting, fishing, gathering, and crafting her own kayak by hand — she admits if she hadn’t left Alaska for an enlistment in the Navy when she was 17, she may never have been ready for higher education.
The Alaska native worked as a fire controlman while stationed in Hawaii for four years before returning home to obtain a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“I wasn’t going to go to grad school right away, and I initially didn’t want to leave Alaska to go,” Stepetin said. “But I was inspired by looking at all these master’s programs online, and I found this one that was still accepting applications, and I didn’t want to wait.”
So she didn’t. As soon as her application was approved in fall 2016, Stepetin packed two suitcases and moved to the Lower 48 to pursue a master’s degree in Cultural Studies from UW Bothell. “(I initially) set up on my aunt’s couch in Bremerton (for three weeks),” Stepetin said. “I figured that would be close enough to get to Bothell. Little did I know how far away it was.”
Stepetin knew her Post-9/11 GI Bill would soon run out and she would need to find employment to support herself and finish her program. Through the UW network, she found a job at the school’s Seattle campus as a regional outreach coordinator for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.
“I love my job because I get to connect with artists in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska and introduce them to our grant program,” Stepetin said. “I go on outreach trips and I visit with people; I bring Burke collection objects to them for a workshop of inspiration. I’m like a steward of the collection.”
Like Tsutsumi, Stepetin works all day, which leaves her with a love-tolerate relationship with the hours at which her class is held each week at the Bothell campus.
“As a morning person and someone with no other commitments, it is hard staying intellectually awake until 10 o’clock at night talking about theory,” she said with a chuckle. “But it has been beneficial for my work and the trips I take for work.”
Stepetin’s immediate future includes more education and possibly a move back home.
“I am applying to Ph.D. programs right now,” she said. “Once I started the master’s program, I thought that I was glad I did this, so I guess I’ll just keep going. I plan on getting a Ph.D. in indigenous governance or something similar, and then return to Alaska in order to change rural Alaskan education systems — just keeping our traditions and culture alive while being contemporary people.”
Avoiding Muddy Waters
Ryan Harasimowicz already had a graduate degree when he returned to school at UW Bothell in 2015 to pursue a degree in cybersecurity.
The 42-year-old licensed architect had earned his first graduate degree traditionally, directly following his bachelor’s degree, and then worked for more than 15 years in architecture before deciding to return to school.
Many aspects of Harasimowicz’s life have changed since his first go-round with higher education. He now has a wife and two children, ages 8 and 10. His children play a myriad of sports, and he works full-time as an architect. Harasimowicz credits much of his success to his wife, who he said does more than her share of the heavy lifting.
“Going back to school is by no means something that I’ve taken on; it is something that we have taken on,” he said. “Even the kids have got to deal with Dad missing this sporting event or that event. There are times when I might not see them for a day and a half, and that is hard for everyone.”
Harasimowicz also appreciates his current employer for being understanding about his school schedule.
“The Seattle-area commutes can be a bit of a drag sometimes, so even a class that starts at 5:45 at night doesn’t necessarily square you with the end of the business day. It requires some flexibility all around,” he said.
Sometimes, Harasimowicz said, he has to skip an occasional class to meet a work deadline, too. “It’s a balancing act. I’ve made a point to compartmentalize those two things as to not muddy the waters,” he said.
Harasimowicz said he is often struck with the realization of how much easier it was to obtain his first master’s degree when he was younger, when there was much less life juggling involved.
“I look back on it now, knowing what I know and going through what I’m going through, and (I realize) it was such a luxury,” he said. “I don’t necessarily want to say it wasn’t appreciated — but it wasn’t understood, I guess, to the fullest extent back then. After all, this is an opportunity to further develop better time-management skills, and who couldn’t do with more of that?”
How to Attain Work-Life-School Balance
Going back to school is a monumental disruption to your life as well as your family’s. A fine line exists between striking a balance and having all your commitments come crashing down on you. Here are a few tips to ensure you continue to toe the line.
Have a Dedicated Support System
Talk to your partner (if you have one) before you consider going back to school. Broach the topic early at first, and often throughout the process. Make sure your partner knows exactly what is involved. Many graduate degree candidates care for dependent children or elders during their studies, which means having a support system beyond your partner is crucial. Don’t be afraid to reach out to nearby family and friends if you need a little extra time with your thesis.
Get Your Boss Onboard
Once your partner is supportive, talk to your employer and closest coworkers. Let your employer know that your education will ultimately add value to the company, but in the interim you’ll need everyone to be understanding of your commitments outside the office. Assure people that your work won’t suffer, you won’t get your degree and run, and you’ll stick around after you graduate for at least as long as it took to get you there. Establish some partnerships with coworkers in case something comes up and you need to lean on someone to pick up a little extra slack, but do this sparingly. Take your coworkers out to lunch or buy them some of their favorite office snacks to thank them whenever they help you out.
Online Versus on Campus
With the technology available to students today and the ever-worsening state of Eastside traffic, there are plenty of options for the working professional when it comes to the frequency at which they need to actually visit a campus. Many schools offer hybrid courses that require only occasional visits to a campus or learning center to connect with cohorts, whereas just as many degree programs exist solely online with zero in-person commitments.
Know Your Limits
Career-minded individuals already are close to overextension with their commitments. Combine that work ethic with family commitments and school, and you’ve got a real pressure cooker full of stress and anxiety. Take stock of how you are feeling. If you find yourself snapping at a well-meaning coworker or missing deadlines at work, it could be a sign that you’ve got too much on your plate. There’s no shame in taking time for yourself and skipping a quarter or taking a week off work.
Celebrate the Victories
You’ll recall the occasional all-nighter or weekend-long marathon research sessions from your undergraduate years. Add in a thriving full-time career and likely a few family commitments while subtracting the occasional frat party or club outing, and you’ve got graduate school. That’s a lot of responsibility without any of the downtime. Take time to reward yourself (and your spouse) for your hard work. Find a sitter, and treat yourselves to a night on the town at the end of every quarter to reconnect and unwind.