The [school] life of an online student / professional

I’ve mentioned before that I have a full-time job but am also in school finishing my bachelor’s degree through Capella University. For my friends who are thinking about returning to school, and for anyone else out there who may be considering online education, I will semi-regularly write a bit about what it is like taking classes online.

Deciding to Return to School

I regretted dropping out of college until I ended up in a job I loved and realized that I never would have found it if I’d stayed in school. Once I had some sort of idea what path I wanted to be on, I decided it was time to go back to school.

My manager at the time was very supportive and encouraging, and he worked with me to design and propose a tuition reimbursement program to our HR department.  I would not have been able to return to school without some form of support (either student loans or this tuition reimbursement program). Fortunately the program was approved. I was a trial run, and after a few quarters the program was expanded (and changed) to support others who were returning to school.

Choosing a School

When I decided to return to school, I had credits from my two years at Western Washington University, as well as credits from two community colleges (running start and a class I had taken after dropping out of Western) and credits from a MS Project class I took at the local tech college.

I was averaging seventy hour work weeks and had a serious lack of flexibility. I wanted to go back to Western, but their business program (at least at the time) lacked undergraduate evening classes. With my work schedule and lack of flexibility, day classes were was out of the question for me.

I also considered finishing whatever I could at the community college. I had challenges there as well with both scheduling and the number of extra classes I’d have to take just to get an associates degree that wouldn’t be required if I went straight to the university level.

After ruling out local options, I decided to look at online schools. I pretty quickly narrowed my search down to University of Phoenix (UOPX) and Capella University (Capella). What was originally a difficult decision ended up becoming very easy. Both schools had degree programs that I was interested in. UOPX had a better reputation and was well known at the time. Capella also had a good reputation where I could find information but wasn’t very well known.

The difference came down to customers service. University of Phoenix kept sending me emails and calling me, but would never answer my questions when I would leave a voice mail or respond to an email. Capella was very responsive and helpful, willing to call when I wanted to be called, and always answered questions quickly.

Degree planning

It was spring of 2005 when I applied to Capella University. The online application process was relatively painless, and if I recall correctly I was accepted in just a couple of weeks. The hard part was planning out what to take when. Fortunately at the time Capella required all students to take a course in their first quarter that helped them build a Degree Completion Plan (DCP) and introduced them to the online learning environment.

I developed two versions of my DCP; One for part-time (one six credit class per quarter) and one for full-time (two six credit classes per quarter). I had hoped after a year to be comfortable enough with my work load and my school-work load to go full-time. With a six credit-per-quarter course load I would graduate in June of 2010, but only if I didn’t take any quarters off.

Five years of school (on top of career) without time off is not something I was able to do, but fortunately after my first several classes at Capella the graduation requirements for my specialty (Management and Leadership) changed and meant that rather than needing 124 credits (after transfer credits), I only needed 105 credits from Capella. I have taken several quarters off and will still graduate in 2010, but not until December.

Classes at Capella

Capella has designed its courses  for working adults. Each 10 week course is split into week-long learning units. From the start of the class, all learning units are available giving the student the ability to plan ahead and balance work, school, family, and social life.

Each week generally has three main components: Study activities, Discussions, and Assignments. Study activities include any reading or research that should be done during the week. Assignments are generally short essays or research projects and often include research or reflection on the student’s work  experiences. Discussions are generally short response questions. Each student must answer the question on group or class discussion board, and then participate in discussions with other students and the instructor on the topic.

In many courses, the original discussion posts are due on Wednesdays while others are more flexible and allow the original post at any point in the  week that the post is assigned. Final discussion responses and assignments are always due on Sundays.

I am relieved that I never did attempt to go full-time. Keeping my personal, professional, and student lives balanced is a constant challenge, and I can’t imagine doing it all with another six credits added to the mix.

Are you a student and professional? How do you maintain balance in your life? If you aren’t, what would you like to hear about? I will probably ramble quite a bit (as I tend to do) when I share about my experiences, but I’d also like to share what is interesting to you.

~ Amanda

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