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Overcoming barriers of going back to school

headshot of Anne Niendorf

I struggled in my early years at school.

After graduating from high school in 1996, I went through technical and four-year colleges — stopping and restarting — until I landed at Madison College and completed an associate degree in 2008.

My journey didn’t end there. In my late 30s, I enrolled in an online program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where I got a bachelor’s degree in human services in 2016 as a first-generation college student.

It wasn’t a straight path, but I know I’m not alone in my unconventional education journey.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in Wisconsin, more than 600,000 people have earned some college credit but no degree. This number expands eight-fold to 5.2 million residents when including neighboring states (Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa).

Now, as a student services coordinator with UW–Madison Continuing studies, I get to share my experience with other returning adult students and help them overcome their own obstacles. Here are some fundamentals I learned about overcoming barriers in my return to school.

Support. Even though my parents didn’t get their bachelor’s degrees, they shared a vision with me that I could be anything that I wanted to be. I was lucky to be surrounded by that kind of support, but I also sought out support from each college I attended — from chatting about which courses to take to getting financial tips.

Financial support is a big barrier for many people returning to school. It takes time and energy to find financial resources. When I moved to Appleton in my mid-20s, I enrolled at UW-Fox Valley (now known as UW-Oshkosh) with a full credit load while trying to work full-time. I nearly left school until I found I didn’t have to be a full-time student to receive financial aid. I regretted not applying for scholarships, but later took advantage of employer tuition reimbursement. Never hesitate to reach out for help.

Experience. Do not discount your work experiences at any level. In high school, I really liked clerical work. I got a co-op job working at Oshkosh’s city hall. Later, while attending Madison College, I volunteered at various places and got an internship at the Dane County Job Center, which helped me realize my passion for human services and eventually turned into a job. Work and volunteer experiences make you a strong student and a desirable employee.

Flexibility. I’m a proponent of online degrees. I got my degree online at UW-Oshkosh because I was able to go to school and keep my job. There are many flexible options available these days — from fully online to hybrid programs that offer some in-person work. Many schools now cater to adult students who have obligations like work and family. In fact, UW–Madison last year introduced UW–Madison Online and its first fully online bachelor’s degree in personal finance, with more degrees on the way.

Confidence. Finally, I know how it feels to give up on yourself. Each time I left school, I felt disappointed. There were times when I thought I didn’t have it in me to get a college degree; I wasn’t smart enough. Of course, that wasn’t true. I surrounded myself with people who supported my goals, and I continued to reach for them even when it was difficult.

I started as a receptionist at the Adult Career and Special Student Services, where now, in my role as a student services coordinator, I’m lucky enough to have seen hundreds of students of all ages come through our programs and meet their educational goals — whether that’s getting a degree or professional certifications or just taking their first class after a long hiatus.

I’ve done it, they’ve done it; you can, too.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Anne Niendorf, a student services coordinator, can be reached at anne.niendorf@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on February 14, 2021.