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A Student Like Me

Suggestions for those who aspire to re-enter the classroom to get a degree

Nasreen Hussain

It is my last trimester and a year more to write my thesis - I cannot wait to receive my PhD degree. I know I will be a proud woman that day. And why not!

When I first contemplated my doctorate in 2002, I was sure that I was accepting an impossible challenge. Re-entry into higher education at the age of 54, after an interval of 15 years - no way! I will never be able to survive through the Programme. With a mixed feeling of anxiety and excitement, I felt somebody pushing me into the portals of the University last spring. The classes soon started, once a week, every Sunday. Considering that it was my first formal class after a long gap, I felt lost and my stress level soon started mounting. After 25 years of being a teacher, it was strange reversing my role; however, with my student spirit rejuvenated, I set myself to get the feel of the classroom atmosphere, which was difficult. Firstly, I was a re-entry student and secondly, I realized very soon that I was surrounded by peers who were at least 15 to 20 years younger to me - never mind the age of the lecturers. The peers came from a diverse socio-economic background with varied teaching experience. Almost immediately, I started to fret and passed a sweeping mental judgment that this would be the first and the last day of my class - I had made the biggest mistake of my life and from nowhere could I find any retreat. Two and a half trimesters have passed and I continue to attend my Sunday classes. So how did I survive? Here are some suggestions for those who aspire to re-enter the classroom to get a degree.

Develop a timeline

The strongest pinch that I felt was lack of time. So, most importantly, plan your work. Establish a consistent block of time to pursue your studies every day. Develop lists of high priority tasks and low priority tasks. You have to be clear in your mind as to what you want to do and what you have to do as a teacher, student, mother and wife, but do remember that timelines are not meant to be broken!

Get to know younger students

Share a central concern with younger students. It is to your advantage to connect with other students and to have access to this multi-faceted, knowledgeable, and systematic support system. Try to bridge the generation gap by sharing your experiences, helping and guiding them when needed. You will thoroughly enjoy being mother figure to the younger students. You never know when you might need their help, for example, using the computer or understanding the villainous subject such as stats. You scratch my back and I will scratch yours!

Find common grounds with lecturers

Greeting in the corridors during short breaks or lunch hours is hardly beneficial. Make an appointment to meet with the lecturers at least at the beginning and end of the course. This will give you an opportunity to discuss your qualms with them and understand their expectations of the students. Remember if you do not ask, you will never learn!

Sought support from your employer

After all, they are the ones who are promoting your professional development. They need to be informed at all the time since they are your stakeholders. Make them a party to your plans, but do not let them set your agenda. Share on regular basis the progress that you have made, the new concepts that you have learnt, and how you plan to apply them in your teaching context. If you do not blow your trumpet who else will!

Take stock of the course subjects

Try to get the course syllabus of all subjects right from the start and discuss them with your seniors. If need be, brush up the subjects by reading books, consulting friends, your children or even your spouse. Just imagine trying to understand BODMAS to get stats problem right! Or memorize a formula for a test, which you will never again use in your life. Still knowledge is as important as experience, if not more!

Muster support of your family members

This means that all members have to take an oath to not only do all the household chores, but also to assist you in using the internet, organizing assignments, typing them out, and motivating you to attend the Sunday classes. This will build their character although they will not realize it!

Let go of your pre-set ideas

It is very difficult for adults to change their way of thinking and at the same time it would be wrong to force change on them. There is nothing wrong to hold on to the traditions, but the beliefs should be fresh and one must reconcile and move ahead with time. You have to learn to understand their feelings. Make sure what the need of the hour is!

Balance it off

Work and study are equally important and at the same time difficult to balance; however, adjustments have to be made in your social life so that scholarly activities can be sustained. Nevertheless, you need not become a hermit. Remember all work and no play will make you a dull student!

Although I felt a bit in the dark at the beginning of the PhD programme, overall, my experience as a re-entry student has been fun, valuable, empowering, and purposeful. At the same time, it has given me high blood pressure readings on frequent occasions. As I have navigated through the system, I have experimented new ways to keep myself on the alert. I have affirmed that I can achieve my goal by using intelligence, combination of prior experience, hard work, determination, and focussed effort. This programme for me, has almost accomplished its purpose and I give the highest rating to myself for the tolerance that I have endured.

© Nasreen Hussain 2003
Nasreen Hussain is Assistant Professor at the Centre of English Language, Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan.

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