Focus, dedication, persistence ... and lots of juggling

The adult student: multitasker master

Sharon McGinnis and family at graduation

Sharon McGinnis ’07 of Aberdeen, N.C., changed jobs twice, built a house, endured her husband’s deployments (two of them!) and had a baby while earning a degree. Here she is shown after the graduation ceremony this year. She is now learning to play the mandolin in her “free time.”

Thousands of Saint Joseph's distance education students simultaneously juggle their job, family commitments and community involvement - while they earn their degrees. How do they do it? It takes careful planning, dedication to the goal and strong personal motivation. The ability to do more than one thing at once doesn't hurt either.

"You have to prioritize what's important .... You can't waste time," says Andrew (A.J.) Gagnon of Presque Isle, Maine. He knows what he's talking about. Not only does he work as an emergency room nurse and flight paramedic on the graveyard shift, he also teaches part-time at Northern Maine Community College and completes courses for his bachelor's degree in nursing. His advice: Never watch TV without also doing assigned reading or homework and doing the laundry. His other tips: "Drink more coffee and sleep a lot less." Oh, and don't forget to have fun: "It's important to clear your mind and it will keep you from being burned out," he says.

Gagnon is an atypical adult student: a single male with no children at home. The "typical" adult student at Saint Joseph's College is about 46 years old. She is married, works full-time and has dependent children living at home. She is also frequently engaged in cultural, professional, religious and athletic activities (especially if you count the kids' soccer, softball and football games!).

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been at the pool with my laptop and a health care management textbook while everyone else is reading a trashy novel!” – Eileen Beltramba ’07

Pam Scribner '07 of Biddeford, Maine, matches the typical profile more closely. Her advice to adult learners is to give up hobbies temporarily and spend every spare minute reading. Scribner, who recently completed her bachelor's degree, says she got out her textbooks while waiting for dinner to cook, waiting for her teenager's lacrosse practice to end, or while eating breakfast.

Online distance education is the fastest-growing segment of higher education, and the most recent statistics reveal that this growth has yet to plateau. Nationally, nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term. So how do all these people juggle work, family and community, and pursue an education?

Take a look at Liisa Kelly. She works full-time as the program director at a special education school and long-term care facility outside of Great Barrington, Mass., where she resides. Married with two children at home, she also volunteers at the local hospital. It's difficult to find time to attend her children's soccer games, but like a true multitasker, she shows up with her laptop and textbooks.

"Other people would ask me, ‘Liisa, what are you doing? It's a soccer game! You have to watch your daughter!'" she says. "But I knew I had to make the most of every moment ...You carve out little spots whenever and wherever you can get them."

Lynn Hunter

Dr. Lynn Hunter wrote her doctoral dissertation on adult women pursuing distance education degrees while she was an online course developer at Saint Joseph’s. She discovered the kind of coping strategies they use to handle their extra-full lives strongly affects their educational outcome.

She recounts talking about a course topic with the pharmacist while at the drug store counter, or writing papers at 5 a.m. or at midnight. Kelly finds a lot of support from her family, her employer, and even the other soccer moms. "When I didn't bring my laptop to the game, everyone wanted to know where it was and what was going on with my class!" says Kelly, who has almost finished her Master of Health Administration degree.

Eileen Beltramba spends about an hour every day on the Garden Sate Parkway driving to her job from her home in Howell, N.J. A nurse administrator in a private ophthalmology practice, she is also the president-elect in a professional nursing association. Meanwhile, she faithfully has completed course after course for her bachelor's in health administration. Within the past few years, she has also faced tremendous obstacles: her father's death, her husband's cardiac problems, and her own breast cancer. "It's life. It doesn't just stop for your problems or your issues," she says.

How adult women students integrate studies into work and family was the topic Lynn Hunter chose for her doctoral thesis at Pennsylvania State University. Hunter, a former online course developer for the Graduate & Professional Studies division at Saint Joseph's, spent nearly a year and a half tracking the lives of seven adult women who were pursuing distance education degrees at Saint Joseph's. They were selected on the basis of their "likelihood of manifesting role strain and role conflict ... as well as having been out of school for a year of more."

Hunter discovered that how a student handles the challenge of adding the learner role to an already full life may depend on the coping strategies she uses - as well as the support she receives from her family, workplace and academic institution. For example, one strategy is to negotiate responsibilities so they are shared or adjusted in some fashion for one or more of the roles as student, parent and employee. Another strategy is to redefine their personal roles in some way, recognizing the limitations they face with trying to fit everything in. For example, one of the women in the study explained: "I realized that, you know, it's not a crisis if the laundry waits two days ... it made me ... less compulsive about things that really don't matter."

A third coping strategy according to Hunter is where a student tries to fit the extra demands of being a learner into existing roles - working harder, smarter, faster - without making adjustments to the other roles. Hunter discovered all seven women used this last coping strategy, but it was typically insufficient by itself. When they used all three coping strategies, they either completed their course or were making satisfactory progress.

Everyone copes and adjusts in different ways. Beltramba uses her commute to catch up with family and friends on the cell phone. "I call everybody on my cell phone in the car! I tried books on tape, but I missed my exit," she says. Beltramba attended summer session this year, where she and six others completed the final course for their degree programs. When asked what she expected to do with her free time, she responded easily, "Plan my daughter's wedding!" Anything else? "Oh, yeah, I want to read a book for pleasure. For as long as I can remember, I've been at the pool with my laptop and a health care management textbook while everyone else was reading a trashy novel!"

Pat Gordon

Pat Gordon ’07 of Fresno, California, appreciated his wife’s patience and understanding when he had to make room for earning his master’s in pastoral theology.

Like many alumni, Pat McGinnis '07 of Aberdeen, N.C., used every weekend and most evenings after dinner to work on her courses. A recent graduate with a Master of Health Administration, McGinnis has some good advice. "You have to be disciplined. Map out when you are going to do a course and when you are going to graduate," she states. "Set your targets and stick to it."

While she pursued her degree, she changed jobs twice, had a house built, and saw her husband deployed twice. Then in 2005, she gave birth to a son. "It was really a lot different when I had Ian. I had to wait for him to go to bed before I could do anything!" After she completed her final course and wondered what to do with her free time, her husband suggested she pick up a hobby. She is now learning the mandolin.

Pat Gordon '07, is more involved with his local parish in Fresno, Calif., now that he has completed his Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies. For the last five years, he was committed to completing his degree, but was also committed to his family. "I dedicated one weekend a month to my studies, and most evenings after family time. Family is always first, before work or school. And Sunday was always family time."

Gordon's job responsibility as human resources director for the Fresno Diocese required frequent travel across the country a few years ago, but he always took his books and laptop. Similar to other students whose families accommodated their academic life, Gordon is very appreciative of his wife, Cathy. "She was very understanding and very patient," he says.

Phyllis Inman-Adams of Mt. Upton, N.Y., never goes anywhere without a textbook, syllabus, or study guide - and steals study time throughout the day. She also uses her 22-foot Gulf Stream camper parked in the driveway as her personal library. "When grandma's out there, everybody knows she's studying and not to be disturbed," she says.

An alumna who just finished her degree requirements during summer session, Pam Metcalf of Westford, Conn., says that, with the demands of work and family obligations, students must be self-motivated. "I've always wanted my degree. It was a personal goal. And once I start something, I finish it!"

So, to all of our masterful multitaskers, whether they still are juggling various roles every day, or whether they have graduated and moved on to more free time, congratulations!

by Brent Wooten