Returning to School | What New Journey Doesn’t Start with a Few Challenges?


Today is someday.

Has anyone ever asked you, “Have you ever considered going back to school?” If you and I are similar in any way, it may be the way we answer this question. “Yeah, someday.”

My someday comes 28 years after I packed my things and bid farewell to my favorite little college town of Indiana, PA. It was 1987 and I was taking the world by storm! Fast-forward to 2015, and I finally applied, was accepted, and started my first class in the professional writing graduate program at Chatham University. Now I’m the old guy sitting in class. But wait, I’m not sitting in class, I’m sitting at home and the class is online. I just worked nine hours. I have to read. I need to post responses to the forums. Then there’s my forum to moderate. Oh man, don’t forget the narrative! What’s a narrative? And the weekly paper assignment! Five pages, single-spaced?!


That’s when the earworm starts and it’s the Kinks singing Destroyer.
STOP! Hold on . . . Stay in control . . .

I stop, and and realize that there is no need to second-guess. I have this!

Welcome to online learning. This is an alternative form of learning that may present challenges for any learner. Here are a few challenges nontraditional students encounter as they start their journey and return to the virtual classroom.

Challenge #1 | Time Management

Spiral ClockThe first challenge I encountered, finding time.

Time management is a serious consideration when embarking on your graduate studies. There are plenty of distractions to learning such as work, family, and life in general. So to be successful you need to set a routine and structure your time for this addition to your day. Just like on your job, you will be more efficient with a few best practices in place.

For me, blocking my time and having a structured approach to coursework helps me. I use an online calendar to plan for the week, identifying intermediate milestones, and the drop dead due dates for each assignment. As I do for my day job, I plan my tasks in manageable pieces, with the end goal for each week in sight.

You most likely already have a routine that works for you. offers time management tips including a Personal Time Survey to calculate the number of hours your daily life consumes. Conquer the clock and Challenge #1 is a positive first step in your journey!

Challenge #2 | Where is Everyone?

Small child with glassess.As a Gen Xer (honestly Baby Boomer) my learning up to this point has been brick and mortar. Although I embrace technology everyday, learning and participation in an online class is a new environment to adjust to. What I have experienced so far is that the community that routinely develops in the traditional classroom also develops through our online tools. It may take a little longer, but once that sense of community finally gels, the class becomes a cohesive unit working together toward a team goal of mastering the subject at hand.

The technology also empowers you as the student. While developing a time management plan that works for you as suggested in Challenge #1, you can incorporate the flexibility of an asynchronous approach to fit a schedule that works for you.

Challenge #2 offers the returning adult student the opportunity to apply today’s practices to achieve the results we accomplished with our #2 pencil and composition book. Our opportunity for growth has been achieved as another challenge is conquered!

Chalkboard with light bulbs drawn.Challenge #3 | Time to Think Again

During my earlier meltdown and Kinks reference, I wondered, “What is a narrative?” Twenty-eight years ago I knew what a narrative was, but that memory was hiding in my subconscious along with how to peg jeans. If you’re like me, “thinking” in a scholarly way must be resurrected. It took a few weeks of online searches and the blessing of my son being home from college for the summer, to re-ignite my thought process. Although I’m still fairly rusty, I’m using my brain again and it feels great!

For me, Challenge #3 has evolved into the best part of the journey so far!

Elderly dog with glasses.You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

The American Council on Education (ACE) states that adult learners make up 40% of the current higher education population. With such a large demographic returning to school, many resources are available for this transition. offers a library of blogs and advice for students at all levels. Two that I found especially helpful for non-traditional college students are 7 Tips to Help Adult Learners Go Back to School and 8 Ways to Stay Organized as an Online Student.

While some of the thoughts I’ve shared with you will be more familiar to a Baby Boomer such as myself, rather than let’s say a Gen Y or Millennial, I believe the theory rings true across all generations. Graduate school is not, nor should it be, easy by any means. But, if you apply organization and time-management best practices, embrace the latest technology, and have confidence in your abilities, your journey to graduation will be an experience you will remember fondly and with great pride.

5 thoughts on “Returning to School | What New Journey Doesn’t Start with a Few Challenges?

  1. I have fond memories of pegged jeans!
    I worked very hard on that before a night on high street at Miami University

  2. Great post, Mike. It has been a joy embracing all of the different backgrounds our class entails. Your experience in the field is undeniable, and your insight offered in our discussions have been enlightening. Diversity is so important, and you brought skills to the table that no one else had. I will truly miss our community, and I’m glad to have been a part. Kudos!

  3. Mike, I can totally relate to your experience. Fitting school into my existing schedule has been challenging but to be back in the academic saddle is well worth it. This has been very good for me and I hope that you have a similarly positive experience through this journey.

  4. Mike,

    I really do think your advice rings true for everyone. Even if there are students entering grad school directly from undergrad, your article is a great reminder about how staying organized and recharging your brain can help to navigate an online learning experience. I’ll have to keep the calendar idea in mind for next class. I never got around to scheduling reminders for due dates, and I ended up looking at the course schedules approximately 15 times each week.

    And I agree with Jason. The diversity of knowledge and real-life experience that nontraditional students can share is a great resource for fellow students.

  5. Time management is so important in online classes. It takes a lot of self-discipline to succeed in an online learning environment. It can be difficult to settle down to do school after a long day at work.

    Like Gabrielle, I also think the advice you give is applicable to those entering the program straight out of an undergraduate program.

    Also, I love your sub-heads on this post. The post itself just looks (and reads) great.

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