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Returning adult students dig deep to balance roles and responsibilities in COVID times

Kristy Jorgensen and family on the beach

Kristy Jorgensen, UW–Madison student, had until 9 p.m. to complete her online midterm exam. She didn’t get home from work until 5:30 p.m., at which time she soothed her teething baby and helped her young daughter with homework while her husband made dinner. She started the exam at 7:15 p.m., just meeting her deadline.

“It’s kind of like juggling,” adds Alex Hentzen, UW–Madison student and single mom to a toddler. “If you just keep going and don’t think about it too hard, you won’t slip up. I focus on the ball I’m currently holding, knowing in 10 seconds there will be another ball to catch.”

Like Jorgensen (above) and Hentzen, returning adult students at UW–Madison remain resilient as they keep multiple balls in the air while managing home life, school and work during the pandemic. They are among 9,805 students 25 years old and older who were enrolled spring 2019 through 2020, making up nearly 23 percent of the total student population.

“Our returning adult students continue to inspire us on a daily basis,” says Martin Rouse, assistant dean and director of Continuing Studies’ Adult Career & Special Student Services (ACSSS). “In any given year, going back to school while holding a job and taking care of your family is challenging. During a pandemic, it’s extra difficult. We’re grateful that we can be a support system for these outstanding scholars.”

In non-pandemic times, ACSSS holds an awards reception to honor returning adult students each April. This year, the event was cancelled, but 60 students were still recognized, as noted in the Outstanding Adult Students Scholarships and Awards booklet.

“We truly miss the in-person experience of celebrating these students and hearing their incredible stories,” Rouse says. “But we know they persevere, and we’re still here for them.”

Getting Badger Ready

Jorgensen and Hentzen are both enrolled in the ACSSS Badger Ready program, for adult students interested in returning to college to earn their first undergraduate degree. Badger Ready staff work with people who may not currently qualify for transfer admission due to previous academic history, addressing their unique challenges.

Alex Hentzen holding her son Wolfgang.
Alex Hentzen balances work, school and family while studying at UW-Madison.

This transitional program is for adults 25+ and veterans of any age who typically have a minimum of 24 credits from an accredited institution and a cumulative break in education of at least two years. After successfully completing specific academic and program criteria, Badger Ready students can be admitted as UW–Madison transfer students.

In addition to attending school, Jorgensen works full time at a body shop as an estimator and serves in the National Guard part time while taking care of her 7-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son. She’s using her GI Bill benefits and a National Guard Tuition Reimbursement Grant to pay for college. After completing Badger Ready, she plans to study personal finance, taking 6 credits a semester, which will put her on track to graduate in 2023 with her bachelor’s degree.

Hentzen, who received a Badger Ready scholarship, recently took a break from serving in the Navy so she could return to school to get her bachelor’s degree in math, which she hopes to achieve in 2022. She works part time at her son’s daycare. During a recent phone conversation, as she talked about the balancing act of being a returning adult student, her son Wolfgang, 20 months, could be heard in the background playing, laughing and crying. Hentzen offered comfort: “What’s the matter, do we have a pinched finger? That’s okay, bubby. An M&M will make it better.”

Returning to school, with support and flexibility

Hentzen went into the Navy out of high school because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study and needed help paying for college. She spent two years of her Naval experience in a classroom-based training program so she would feel more prepared to go back to school.

Jorgensen, a first-generation college student, attended college for one semester out of high school before realizing she couldn’t afford it. After getting married and starting a family, she joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard in 2015 then returned to college in 2016, taking classes while she was stationed at bases around the world. After getting her associate degree and trying out UW-Whitewater, she found the Badger Ready program and enrolled in fall 2020. Jorgensen adds, “It had been my dream since I was a small child to study at UW–Madison.”

Jorgensen and Hentzen agree that they rely on a support system to get them through school.

Hentzen’s older sister lives with her, and much of her family lives nearby. “They’ve all been so supportive and helpful. I could not do it without them,” she says, adding that her employer has also been understanding and allows her to study at work during down times. She’s also found her UW–Madison professors to be accommodating, giving her extensions on assignments when her son’s daycare closed due to a COVID-19 case.

Jorgensen credits her husband as being a huge help during her educational journey; early in their marriage, she supported him through his intense job training. And she’s grateful her daughter can go to school in person and her son can attend daycare at that same school since both she and her husband have to work in person.

“There are good and bad days,” Jorgensen adds. “It all comes down to time management and being flexible. I strive to be as present as I can for my husband and children, so most of my studying ends up happening during my lunch break at work, my younger child’s naps or after the kids go to bed.”

Eyes on the future

Jorgensen plans to get her bachelor’s degree, majoring in personal finance, and become a Certified Financial Planner (CFP). Both she and her husband grew up in families with limited means, so her goal is to help improve people’s financial well-being.

Hentzen hopes to use her degree to finish out 20 years in the Navy, possibly starting as a teacher at a nuclear power training pipeline. Her advice to other returning adult students: “Every problem that I’ve encountered so far I have been able to solve by telling people my limitations and asking if they could accommodate me. I encourage adult students to ask for help.”

Both Hentzen and Jorgensen take pride in their paths.

“I hope this shows my kids that no matter the timing and obstacles, they can do anything,” Jorgensen says. “College, trade school, anything is possible, and they should do what they love.”

Learn more about the Adult Career and Special Student Services at UW–Madison or email advising@dcs.wisc.edu.