By Elaine Greenwood
In 1990 I graduated university with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree and big ideas of what my life would look like in terms of family and career. After working for six years I started a new journey as a fulltime stay-at-home mom to a family that would grow to include three wonderfully amazing daughters. It was a tremendous learning experience and very personally rewarding, but financially taxing. Once they were all in school five days a week, I turned my attention to finding a job
In 2010 I returned to post-secondary school on a part-time basis. I attended human resources courses at my local college, and concurrently I also started a Master of Education program online. I had faced great difficulty in rejoining the labour market after being away for so long, and I felt that adding to my formal education would help in my endeavours to become a working parent.
Several years later when it came time to write a culminating research paper to cap off my graduate degree, I selected a topic I was familiar with; a consideration of the role of post-secondary learning in aiding my return to the workforce after a significant employment gap.
I chose to use an autobiographical narrative research approach, and I wrote 40 reflections based on significant temporal landmarks in my life, from my childhood to the present. What follows is an entry I authored on October 29, 2013 called “First Class”. It describes what I was feeling as an adult learner experiencing my first post-secondary class in over 20 years:
“I like order. I like to be organized. And I have the time. So, as I prepare for my first organizational behaviour class, I am able to set up my online college account and print out my notes for my first class. I graduated university in 1990. Research was done in person in the library. Graphs were drawn using a pencil and a ruler. Notes were handwritten in pen. Now I can access information from around the world from the comfort of my home.
Course PowerPoint slide presentations are loaded onto my account. I can even rent the text in e-book format if I choose. Notes can be highlighted on my computer instead of on paper with a florescent yellow or pink marker. I embrace the technology as a tool to gain knowledge, organize my notes, and hopefully pass the course with strong marks.
Armed with my papers I enter the classroom and await my first lecture in many, many years. Around me is a cross-section of part-time and full-time students; just out of high school, adult learners, international students, males, and females, each of us at different stages of school and life.
For some, this class is an elective and they will not venture further down this path. For others, it is a specific course an employer wants their employee to take. And for some, like me, it is an opportunity to become more marketable in the workforce. I feel nervous, excited, and I wonder how I will measure up against my classmates. But at least now I have some concrete goals.
The next day I add my own recorded notes to the materials supplied, start a list of definitions, and even make up cue cards to study from. If I am going to commit financially and personally, I am going to commit fully to doing my best work. Especially if potential employers want a copy of my transcript.
Underneath this façade of organization there are lingering doubts. Can I do this and still be there for my children? Will I be able to handle the pace of learning? Will I do O.K.? Am I making a mistake? Will this schooling actually help me find a job? Why didn’t I do this sooner?
As the weeks progress, I realize how much I have missed formal learning. I value the fact that I can dedicate my time during the day to prepare for classes. This is a luxury not shared by most of the other mothers in my class who are either working or are full-time students.
I excel. My marks are positive reinforcement of my efforts and drive me to work harder. At the end of the course I have earned a perfect mark of 100% for my final grade. It feels good to be rewarded formally for my skill and effort. The mark is tangible evidence I accomplished something.
It is not that I expect to have a cheering section jump up every time I fold a load of laundry or manage to cook a well-balanced meal for my family. But it is nice to have people see me in a different role from “Mother”. And it is enjoyable to model a different form of hard work and effort for my children.
They are proud of me, and they are willing to help me out around the house when I am busy doing school work. I don’t know if I would have been able to focus on school when they were younger and less self-sufficient. Juggling marriage, studies, and a young family is a learning curve for all of us but we are managing.
School is raising self-doubts, but as I accomplish each task, I develop pride and self-confidence. Attributes that ongoing employer rejections have had a way of depleting in me. For once I have ended up at the top of someone’s list.
At the end of the course I organize my notes one last time into a newly purchased binder that I label neatly with the course’s name and number. I set it on the shelf above my desk with satisfaction. One down, eight more to go. Maybe I can do this after all.
Fast forward six years later to 2019, and I now work at the very same local college where I was once an unsure student. Every September it is still very easy for me to remember what it felt like to sit nervously in my seat on Day 1 of a course and wait for what comes next. Only now I am the person who loads the course PowerPoint slide presentations for my own students to download in preparation of their first class with me.
Elaine Greenwood is a Program Coordinator and Professor at Georgian College.