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How I earned my post-grad as a parent

Two parents share their stories on going back to school while raising kids, plus what it means to be a role model for lifelong learning

In partnership with Royal Roads University 

Young mother working at home while her two daughters playing on the bed

Photo: Stocksy

Parenting is a balancing act; add continuing education to an already toppling list of lunch prep, birthday parties and temper tantrums, and it could feel as though the scales have tipped. But as many parents who went back to school know, the time and effort is well worth it and often leads to exciting and fulfilling new careers.

Thirteen per cent of postsecondary students in Canada are parents, according to Tricia Van Rhijn, an associate professor at the University of Guelph whose research focuses on mature students and lifelong learning, and who also returned to school as a parent. 

Student parents face more challenges than traditional students, Van Rhijn says, but they’re also often more successful in terms of grades, and that has plenty to do with their “intrinsic” motivators. “They [often] want to go back to show their children that lifelong learning is important [and] that they can do it and be successful,” she says. “Children often become part of their motivation to go back to school.” 

We spoke to two Canadian parents who returned to school about why they went back, how it benefited their careers and how they manage the school-life balance.

My daughter was inspired by my success

A desire to further her education and bolster her professional credibility was behind Sandra Bjurstrom’s decision to go back to school. In preparation for the change, she sold the children’s store she’d founded in Calgary, and used some of the proceeds to finance her return to school. She also got a contract job as a consultant before starting a two-year MBA program at Royal Roads University in Victoria in 2014. 

She chose the program because it had the most flexible scheduling, which allowed her to continue working full time and support her then-teenage daughter, who had a busy schedule as a student athlete. Royal Roads’ MBA program is primarily remote learning, with the exception of three-week residencies at the beginning and end of the program, where students were on campus for intensive classes that benefitted on facetime with professors and classmates. Bjurstrom was able to take unpaid leaves from work to attend, calling her daughter every day.

“Honestly, when you’re taking an MBA and raising a child, you quickly learn what your priorities are,” she says. But even though she says juggling school, work and parenting was busy, it didn’t feel unachievable. “I had enough time, I just had to focus on the right things.” 

Bjurstrom’s biggest worry was that her daughter would suffer while she was going to school, so they talked about moments together that meant the most—including their morning drives to school and dinnertime. Today, Bjurstrom says her daughter was affected by her continuing education, but in a positive way. “She attributes her success [at university] to having seen me be successful with a very demanding schedule. She saw me achieve a very big goal, and she was able to benefit vicariously through that.” 

As for Bjurstrom, now a marketing lead at Ingu Solutions, she says the program gave her more credibility in her job, and has helped her “show up” as a leader.

“It’s a real big blessing and a gift”

Benjamin Morgan spent 16 years as a paramedic in Calgary before contemplating a career change. After finding his calling as the service’s public education officer, dealing with local media and the general public, he was promoted away from it. He quickly started applying for new public relations jobs, but found that while he could get an interview, his educational background was too medicine-focused to land him high-level jobs. With a one-year-old at home and another on the way, he couldn’t afford to start in at entry-level. 

After doing some research, Morgan decided to attend Royal Roads University for his master’s of arts and professional communications in 2011. The distance education component allowed him to continue to work and be at home with his family, and he was able to attend the university’s in-person residencies through a combination of shift-swapping with fellow paramedics and taking vacation time. Morgan said he had meaningful conversations with his partner and child beforehand, so they understood why going back to school, and relied on rigorous scheduling — taking an hour or two every night to work on his schoolwork — to manage the balance.

But it was a challenging experience, and he nearly dropped out three times. What kept him in the program was support from fellow students in his cohort. When, at one point, he was feeling overwhelmed and his hard drive had crashed, losing all of his work, one of his classmates flew to Calgary to surprise him. “He said, ‘I brought my backpack, I have an extra computer, I’m not leaving until you’re caught up,” Morgan says. “A lot of people feel that . . . you’re on your own. [But] you’re part of a community, and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.”

The struggle was well worth it. Shortly before he was set to graduate, Morgan landed a job with the city of Calgary as a supervisor of crisis communications — just three months before the city would be hit with a debilitating flood, now known as the costliest natural disaster and largest peacetime evacuation in Canada’s history. “I ended up in a role that challenged me in a way, professionally, that no other communications person [would be].”

Three years later, Morgan flew up to Fort McMurray to help with crisis communications during the wildfires that wracked the city and surrounding area. Today, he’s an associate faculty member at his alma mater, and at a Calgary university. He also runs his own consultancy. “Instead of working horrible shift work . . . I’m in a position now to be able to help support companies and communities through some real challenges. It’s been a real big blessing and a gift.” 

Thinking of going back to school? Here are some quick tips

Figure out your finances

Put away a little money every month for a couple of years, and use other funding options available to you. Van Rhijn points to the lifelong learning program through a registered retirement savings plan. You can also take out a line of credit connected to the equity on your home. Student loans are harder to qualify because they’re calculated based on household income, but are possible. Apply for as many scholarships and grants as you can.

Rely on your support system

“Having a partner [was essential],”says Nuria Gonzalez, a Toronto graphic designer and mother of two who went back to school for her master’s degree. And if you have family and friends nearby, ask them for help when you need it, whether it’s swinging by to make dinner when you need time to study or taking the kids to soccer practice while you’re in class.

Make a schedule

Whether it’s on the wall or online, a detailed schedule is crucial in managing child-care commitments, major project deadlines and more. “It seems like the most basic thing, but it’s number one,” says Katie Lewis, a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and mother of twins who went back to school for a certificate program. “My kids thrive on a schedule.”

Cut some corners

Don’t sweat the small stuff. “My kids’ room is a disaster right now,” Lewis says with a laugh. “You have to give yourself permission to let the laundry pile up a bit or let your kid’s room be messy. You’re not going to look back in five years and say, ‘Gee, I wish I kept my kids’ room cleaner.’ You’re going to look back and say, ‘I’m so glad I went to school.’”