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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

February 8, 2018

Student Success

Overcoming obstacles on your way to a degree.

Most people don’t realize when they write out their new year’s resolutions that the road isn’t going to be a straight line to the finish. You have to have the commitment to overcome the obstacles you will inevitably face along the way and the proper strategies to juggle things when they start to pile up. This is especially true for people looking to return to college.

Going to college when you’re a decade or more removed from high school is a completely different experience than going down the traditional path. Sure, you have more experience and a better work ethic, but there are also more obstacles to overcome and there’s no longer a safety net. WGU was built from the ground up with this reality in mind - that adult learners need an alternative and more effective means to return to school. And while WGU’s Competency-Based curriculum and online nature are excellent for non-traditional students, one of the most important things WGU provides is a student mentor.

Mentors are there to help you find those strategies for conquering the curveballs, bad luck, and distractions that you will face along the way. And there’s no better way to get that advice than to go straight to the source. Here’s just a few of the tips and strategies that our Mentors have used to help their students get through tough times and push through to reach their goals.

Support network

Create a support system.

One of the most important things to do early on is to seek out and surround yourself with people that will support you along the way. Whether that’s with encouragement, inspiration, or being willing to lend a helping hand when the going gets tough.

Nancy Fitzgerald-Bellovary, a student mentor, has had multiple students go through huge life events like parents passing away, losing their jobs, or suffering from a major illness. However, for some she didn’t have to worry because she knew that they had a good network of people to help them focus on their goals even through those rough times. She advises students “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. My successful students are not necessarily my smartest students or even the most hardworking but they have people in their life that believe in them and their goals.  They have 5 people that will help support them and be a role model for how to live a rich life. I would like to encourage students who are struggling to stop and think for a minute about who their 5 people are?“

Having a support network is also important to help alleviate the routine chores and daily things that seem to get in the way. Bri Wojtylak, a program mentor, says “Mentees often struggle with getting their family unit on board for the journey. They almost always think it’s great for their family member to go back to school, but often don’t realize that it is a significant household impact.”

That may mean family members have to take up more of the housework so you have time to study or that they need to take more responsibility cooking meals, taking care of the children, or going shopping.

To overcome these issues, Bri has a number of suggestions. She recommends having open and frequent conversations about how your schooling will change your home life, making decisions together on how to allocate chores, making sure you schedule and plan quality family time, but most important celebrating your successes at WGU together as a family.

Setting goals

Set realistic and achievable goals.

Another point where people often get stuck is failing to live up to their own standards. They will set far-reaching goals but often not take into account how long it takes to get there. Nancy says she’s “had some students that hit a roadblock when they get a cold or get some additional responsibilities at work.  As a result, goals keep moving forward but without making much success.”

When people don’t see themselves at the finish line, they can get discouraged because they don’t match the Hollywood version of success. It’s important to be honest with yourself about how much of a load you can take on and to divvy up your goals into small actionable parts so that you can see the progress being made. Nancy recalls a quote from the book Mindset by Carol Dweck:

"We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born differently from us.  We don’t like to think about them as relatively ordinary people who through hard work made themselves extraordinary.”

Your mentor knows exactly how to help you set those goals. Program Mentor Mary Vanderlinden says she “will break down the curriculum and show the student a series of short pathways to success. We celebrate when one of these short paths is completed!  I put together documents that show students these paths and allows them to clearly see how their courses connect”

But for these strategies to be successful you have to be upfront with your Mentor. Jen Stankiewicz, another program mentor, recommends being honest with yourself and your mentor, reflecting on your capabilities and adjusting your priorities accordingly. By planning ahead you can help avoid surprises.

By continually gauging your progress, pacing yourself reasonably and staying committed no matter the struggles you face, it’s possible to achieve your education goals.

Using guidance maze

Use your mentor.

Every situation you come across on your path will be unique, and while there’s a number of general rules to keep yourself on track, sometimes it’s best to utilize the most important resource you have as a WGU student: Your mentor.

Jen breaks down the role of the mentor saying she helps students by:

  1. Asking them every week what she can do to help
  2. Promoting honesty, even if it is uncomfortable
  3. Trusting the student as an adult learner and giving them agency
  4. Encouraging student reflection on progress and prioritizing needs
  5. And connecting students with support services early and often

Mentors know exactly what you need as a student and as a person working to achieve their dreams because they themselves have walked down the same path. Mentor Nate relates how he was a WGU student. 

“As a busy teacher, musician, and dad, I decided that I needed to take a new step in my career and get a master’s degree. I got off to a strong start in my WGU program but the rest of life doesn’t stop when you start school, and in my case, it got a lot busier. I had 3 young kids at home when I started my WGU program – the oldest was 4. I was working at three different schools each day, and most of my prep time was spent driving between them. And during this time, my wife’s father was diagnosed with a rare terminal cancer, so we spent a lot of weekends and holidays traveling to help family. To be honest, I was not an ideal WGU student, schedule-wise. And there were definitely weeks when I didn’t accomplish my goals. But I was able to finish my degree at an accelerated pace in spite of my obstacles.”

He was able to complete his studies by devising strategies to keep him on track – compartmentalizing and keeping work, family and study separate, talking on the phone early and often with his mentor and constructing a system of support - strategies that as a Mentor at WGU he can pass on to the next generation of WGU students.

WGU Mentors are the best resource you will have on your journey as a WGU student. They know how to help you face obstacles and keep you motivated until you get to stand up on the stage at commencement. Robbyn Michaels, a program mentor at WGU, talks about how she’s done this for two of her students. She had two students run into challenges, one went through a divorce while another was robbed. She used a number of strategies to help them.

"We planned ways to embrace the obstacle and work through it, including what they needed to take care of in the immediate future. I put the challenge to both students that if they don’t finish what they started here at WGU, they were conceding their goal (to the divorcing spouse, or to the criminals). We had meaningful conversation about why this degree was important and visualized pushing through the obstacle and that even though it would be difficult it would be rewarding in the end.”

And that’s the most important thing to keep in mind – that while the path to a college degree may be long and full of hurdles, if you keep on keeping on and use the resources WGU provides in the end it will be worth it.

Learn more about how WGU's unique approach and personal mentors make it easier for non-traditional students here.

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