I’m almost 30 and an undergrad again, studying dietetics.
A question I ask myself often is “What am I doing with my life?”
So it goes, I suppose.
The first term is always the hardest, in my opinion because you just don’t know what you’re doing. I anticipated a lot of fumbling, trial and error, and small wins sprinkled with awkwardness, as I navigated my new life.
The chronicles of an almost 30-year-old, career-changing, undergrad dietetics student begin here, starting with my first semester.
Here is a run-down of my experience in my first semester back in school:
Expectations for Myself
I guess the biggest thing to really tackle was the expectations I set for myself. I’ve successfully completed university twice and I also taught at the University level, so I thought I should be capable of excelling.
So, for me, I didn’t feel like I could be an average student. I had to excel.
It’s not unfair to say I’m an overachiever. Upon reflection, I realized I tend to want to do everything, and I want to do it well.
I’m not proud of this trait, because it makes me prone to overworking myself and I don’t desire my life to be a compilation of work tasks.
Why didn’t you just go into a graduate program?
Once you finish a bachelor’s degree, the logical step is to apply to graduate school, if you ever decide to return to school.
I didn’t like the idea of being an undergraduate again, so I did look into a few graduate programs.
There is an expectation that you have all the time in the world to study as an undergraduate because, as a student, that’s your job. You’re supposed to be a student.
However, we all know that undergrads are also balancing jobs, volunteer commitments and a ton of other responsibilities.
Graduate programs seem to understand that. They treat students like people. With jobs. And lives.
On top of that, undergrad students get a bad rep for being “whiny millennials who can’t do anything useful.” As a millennial myself (and if you were born between 1996-1981 you’re one too), I have a problem with this association.
Are we really responsible for:
- for the bad housing market because we buy avocado toast?
- causing population decline because we aren’t all having 3 children?
I sincerely doubt we are the root and only cause of these issues.
Why did I become an undergrad then?
Being an undergrad (again) felt like taking a step back. However, being able to study completely online was a far greater priority to me.
All of the programs I found that fit this criteria were undergrad programs.
Feeling the Need to Excel Is Stressful
I thought that if I didn’t excel, that would reflect pretty poorly on my background. I mean, a university teacher with a master’s degree goes back to the undergrad level and receives average grades..
That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
If you tell people you’re in grad school everything is fine. No questions asked.
Mention you’re an undergrad and suddenly you’re explaining how you got there, emphasizing that you weren’t lost and confused, you’re just changing directions and you do, indeed already have a successful career.
Oh, and you could have gotten into grad school, it just wasn’t the best option for you.
From what I’ve seen, the online dietetic programs are at the undergrad level, so that’s how I found myself an undergrad again.
Even though I know that my not succeeding was not a rational thought, the worry that I wouldn’t do well was lurking around in my brain.
I couldn’t really shake the fact that I had a lot of high expectations for myself when I started.
What it’s like to decide to go back to school:
“Going back to school, it’s something that’s both exciting and terrifying.”
You’re excited to start this new journey of your life. It’s a new chapter that’s bright and shiny.
On the other hand, you’re also terrified because you aren’t sure what to expect.
Even though I’ve been around the university circuit for a while and had an idea of what was coming, you never really know until you actually start doing it.
I was concerned about a few things in particular:
- how I would manage my work schedule with school
- How I would study this science discipline
- How would I handle getting graded again for my work
I wasn’t really sure how to manage my expectations and when I did have them, they were high. Like I said, the thought of getting Cs was not an option for me.
And that brings me to my expectations about the coursework.
Expectations About Coursework
As I mentioned before, I’ve been in university twice, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, and I taught in university.
My main takeaway from these experiences is that studying is a lot of work. A LOT. This is no secret.
And when you’re an online student, the course work feels heavier because you have to interact with the material by yourself.
I fully expected to do a lot of reading and a lot of assignments, a ton in fact, but I didn’t know how I would handle the deadlines.
Time Management is Key
Time management has never been something I’m great at. This skill is one people spend lifetimes attempting to master.
I will likely be one of those people.
I use a few time management strategies. The main one is planning my tasks and deadlines with a spreadsheet. Occasionally, I boldly (and mistakenly) believe my memory will serve me fine for a few days and I skip checking my planner.
Without fail, I forget or miss something and realise I’ve been a fool!
Kendrick Lamar said it best–”be humble”.
My spreadsheet keeps me humble.
Tracking my tasks has also taught to have a more realistic understanding of time.
“Study” such a short word for a time-consuming task. It’s easy to write “study” and 5 more tasks into one day. Doing them all is a different story.
Now, the first course I took was general chemistry. And I had a surprisingly positive experience with that.
Part of the reason for that was because I took it over a 16 week period in the spring. My summer classes were condensed into 5 weeks.
Those 2 hours of study I spent per day in spring became more like 6 hours for summer.
Dealing with tight deadlines was a challenge for me over the summer semester. I had an assignment, exam or quiz due almost daily.
The first summer class I took was alright. We had a chapter per day to read and we had a day off between an exam and the start of a new module.
There were plenty of times where I basically just gave up my personal life to focus on study and work. That’s not not how I want to live my life.
I actually really genuinely considered abandoning this pursuit of mine.
Because, you know, I already have a career, I’m good at my job. Do I want the constant stress and struggle of trying to take in new information all the time while balancing my life?
I hit a low in motivation towards the end of my summer courses.
I trekked through purely because of my work ethic. If I start something, I finish it and when I do work, I do good work.
I was not interested in nutrition itself during this low.
Now that the course is over, I feel much better and more motivated to continue. I do genuinely want to be a registered dietitian.
I should NOT have started my nutrition courses in the summer. Intensely-paced courses are really off-putting to me and I know this.
I don’t enjoy constantly cramming in new information and waiting for all of it to (hopefully) sink in by the end of the term.
Expectations About Grades
Dealing with my expectations on grades was the most challenging.
As I mentioned previously, I had high expectations for myself, because, you know, a university teacher going back and getting Cs doesn’t sound great.
The only person judging me is myself, although we know how big of a critic we can be.
This was not rational thinking and I didn’t have anything to prove, but the thoughts that I had to do well never went away.
Being a student magnifies these thoughts because you are judged through numbers.
And when you’re an online student, that’s even more true because teachers and other students don’t interact with you, they interact with your work.
The assignment types can amplify this. It’s hard to have a personality through multiple choice questions.
For me, I felt like I had to put a lot of effort into my work to show that I could do good work.
Bs, Cs, As– at the end of the day, they don’t matter if you can apply the knowledge you acquired.
However, that did not stop me from feeling like rubbish when I got a C on my first exam, or the C I got on my second exam (it was a higher C!).
Coping with Failure
I’m okay with failure, but I don’t like it. I mean, who does?
Logically, quizzes, exams and assignments help us (and teachers) figure out whether we as students are mastering the knowledge or not.
I use my assignments to learn where I need to refocus my efforts so I can do better. My coursework also tells me which areas of nutrition I’m interested in.
Spoiler Alert: I like nutrition for adults and older adults.
Usually, I need to re-read a section or change the way I study the material.
For the class where I got Cs on my first two exams, I changed the way I took notes, and I saw drastic improvements. But the initial feeling of not being good was very real…Cue imposter syndrome!
Luckily, I’m aware that this is not a productive mentality to have and I got myself back on track.
No one cares that I got a C except me, right?
Recognize Small Wins
Even though multiple choice exams were not my strength, I got a confidence boost from my written assignments. I think I’m a good writer.
I wrote some very beautiful, well presented, written assignments, and I did well on those. That was a win which I happily accepted.
Looking at it holistically, especially as career-changing students, we have a lot going on and we don’t have a lot of time.
This means our work will suffer at some points, whether that’s our schoolwork or work-work or maybe even things in our life.
There is a balance. We could be mucking up one area of our life while doing great in others.
When school work is the area we are struggling with, we will eventually get better. Who would bother taking a class if they already knew the information and mastered the skills?
Overall, my first term back was pretty positive. I’m not quitting, anyway. Despite speed bumps, I made it through this semester unscathed and unjaded.
My expectations need tweaking, but that comes with practice, time and patience.