It is 8 p.m. when I jump on the highway to make my hour drive to Webster, going to school for The Journal’s production night. A 12-hour workday in my rearview mirror, the warmth of the heater and the hum of the road quickly become the ingredients for danger. When I open my eyes again I am centimeters away from the guardrail on my left, driving 80 miles per hour. I swerve to avoid collision and take the closest exit. I didn’t go to class that day.
When asked about the struggles of being a nontraditional student (someone enrolled over the age of 24) juggling a full-time career and full-time enrollment, I think of this moment. Monday through Friday I am working, driving or in class for a minimum of 12 hours a day. This does not include time for schoolwork, friends or family.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ time use survey, I am on the low end of the average. Adding together a student and employee’s daily time use within each field means people are spending 15.1 hours each day in one of these activities. When you add in the healthy eight hours of sleep each night, that leaves .9 hours to do all other life activities (i.e. housework, grooming, leisure, etc.). It’s no surprise that sleep is often the casualty of sustainability.
I am not unique.
According to a 2012 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 47 percent of undergraduate students also hold a full-time job. This statistic can be correlated to the 40 percent of nontraditional students that makeup of the average four-year institution. That is a lot of cranky, sleep deprived, go-getters barreling down the highway at any given time. The numbers are projected to increase by 43 percent by 2020.
For us, everyday is a battle. I have to constantly remind myself to take things moment to moment to avoid the inevitable mental collapse. I don’t make plans to avoid having to cancel because I am too tired to get out of bed. Luckily, I have an understanding family that does not get upset when it becomes three months in between seeing each other.
The chaotic lifestyle with zero downtime weighs on me constantly. I get depressed easily. I start to snap at those closest to me when it feels like I am being held together with toothpicks. I scream in the car. I cry in the shower. I show signs of everything that Mental Health America tells you to watch out for when trying to balance school and work.
Many reasons contribute to why nontraditional students are choosing to put themselves through such personal strain. Some want ease of access while climbing the corporate ladder, others want higher paid positions and others want to set an example for their children.
For me (as is the case for many in my position) this hectic life is a necessity. I am 30 years old with a house, a car payment and a dog. I have to sustain 40 hours a week as a paralegal in order pay my bills and afford to go to Webster.
But the choice is about more than that. The choice is about future sanity. Patten University described it as being “my own personal hero.” I am putting myself through the grinder, like many others, because sometimes money isn’t enough. I couldn’t live with myself working in an office, doing a job I hate for people who don’t appreciate it, praying for a retirement that I will be too old to enjoy. It will be worth it to take the pay cut after leaving school with $30,000 more in debt when the day comes that my work fills me with pride. When I produce something that makes a difference.
The work and school balance is a white-knuckled nighttime highway race filled with potholes, guardrails, stalled vehicles and insane drivers. This balance pushes you to your extremes and never lets you get comfortable, but daybreak is on the horizon and the sunrise is going to be splendid.