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As it turns out, I’m not the maverick I appear to be. It seems everywhere I go, I find out about another person who went back to school. Just last weekend I went to a 60th birthday party for a friend and was talking to a woman about my being in grad school. She motioned toward her mom standing next to her and said, “She went back for a degree in interior design when I was growing up. I remember the nights when we would find her asleep on her drafting table!”

When my Aunt Kathy read the post I wrote about finding “my tribe” of non-traditional students, she left a comment reminding me that like my mom, she and two other aunts, Carolyn and Judy, got degrees later in life. My husband’s cousin added a comment that his grandma went back to school when she was in her 50s.

Then I clicked on my Facebook page and found out that my friend Mary, who had a successful career as a disc jockey on a Phoenix radio station, decided to pursue the college degree she never got. (You can expect a post in the coming weeks about her very interesting journey.)

The more I thought about it, the more people I remembered who had mentioned their experiences as older students. When I told my professor Dr. Leslie-Jean Thornton that I’d chosen to write my blog about going back to school after age forty, she expressed particular interest in my topic. “I’m going to enjoy seeing where this goes,” she said.  “You know, I went back for my Ph.D. in my 40s.”

I later asked her what led to that decision, and she wrote this thoughtful reply:

“I felt increasingly empty and inadequately employed, and I wanted to do something that mattered more than what I was already doing or had done. This was not a new feeling or a new reaction; it built on those that had gone before. I felt that going for the Ph.D. would be a life-changer, and I was right, just as I had been about going for my masters in my 30s.”

Actually, my first step in pursuing my interest in journalism introduced me to another journalist who, like professor Thornton, found herself at a professional crossroads. I had arranged for an informational interview last January with Michael Hiatt, the publisher of Phoenix Magazine, because I knew that the content side of media interested me. (My undergrad in journalism led to my earlier advertising career on the other side of the business.) He suggested I spend a morning with Mare Czinar, the magazine’s director of production. During our visit, she told me she decide to get her MBA after many years in the business to gain the credentials and respect in her industry that would back up her knowledge.

Interestingly, she also told me that if she had any advice for someone entering journalism now, it would be to get a degree in online journalism and digital media. When I emailed her months later and told her I’d been accepted to the Cronkite School’s graduate program, she commented on the industry’s need to embrace change and face its future. “Publishing is going through a major transformation and it’s a smart move to get on the wave now.  The best business plans always include keeping a finger on the pulse of industry trends and then preparing yourself to take on the new challenges.  Ignore the wave and you’re toast.”

Ignore the wave and you’re toast. Those words of caution could apply to how you respond to the feeling you get when you realize what you have to do to pursue your dreams.

I had that feeling when it dawned on me that this particular moment in my life offered a singular opportunity for me to go back to school. It didn’t happen when Mare made her suggestion (although that planted the seed.) It came when my sister, Martha, challenged me to accept that I was a talented writer. In that moment, on that pivotal day of February 4, 2oo9, I felt a sense of clarity that had eluded me for fifteen years. I knew if I didn’t get off the phone and find the grad school application online and start filling it out, I’d always wonder what could have been.

So listen to that gut feeling that tells you there’s something more out there. Maybe you, like my professor, feel a higher calling than what you had been doing. Perhaps you have a yet unattained goal like my friend, Mary. Whether your “aha moment” is caused by a desire for respect in your current position as in Mare’s case or simply a desire to pursue your passion as I did, recognize that it is not a crazy idea. People make this choice literally every day.

I never believed I was exploring some uncharted territory by going back to school. Still, with so many successful people around me who’ve led the way and who continue to inspire me, it’s nice to know I’m in good company on this ride of a lifetime.

Twenty years ago, in my undergrad days, this would have been the point in Thanksgiving weekend when my sister, two brothers and I would make the drive from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to my parents’ house in Green Bay. The rest of my eight siblings and their significant others also would travel home for the holiday. We’d say our hellos and scramble to claim a bed, a couch, or if you were the last to arrive, a space on the office floor. Then we’d head out to the bars together to see who else came home for the weekend.

The next day we’d wake up to the smell of the turkey already in the oven and get ready for a day of helping Mom in the kitchen. We’d usually sit down to eat at around four o’clock– all the left-handed kids on the same side of the table– and take turns saying what we were thankful for. You’d hear the typical gratitude, “…I’m thankful for my health”… “for my friends”… “for (fill in the name of the boyfriend or girlfriend of the moment). Finally, we’d get to my stepdad, Ray, who’d say with relief, “… I’m thankful it’s time to eat.”

I didn’t make it back to Green Bay this Thanksgiving because I wasn’t sure I could afford the time away. Several of my classmates booked their trips months ago, but I wasn’t comfortable making that commitment. In the end, I’m happy I stayed here because I have to write a paper, create a photo slide show and shoot a TV story about UN refugee families living in Phoenix.

Still, although I’m not spending my vacation in Wisconsin with everyone (enjoying the eight pies my mom makes), I can think of many things I would say as Ray patiently waited through our traditional declarations of gratitude:

I’m thankful for all the times I’ve found comments of support and encouragement on my Facebook page after a long day on campus.

I’m thankful for my sons’ growing self-reliance, as well as their honesty when they tell me they wish they could spend more time with me.

I’m thankful for the generosity of those who have rallied to help me, from covering my carpool days to finding a clinic for swine flu shots.

I’m thankful for every day I get to walk into the state-of-the-art Cronkite building.

I’m thankful for my inspiring cohort of grad students, who challenge me everyday with their positivity, their ambition, their ideas and their insights.

I’m thankful for the advice of my mentors, who’ve pushed me to find my voice, tell my stories and pursue the truth.

More than anything, I’m thankful for Erik’s belief in my future as a journalist (and for the awesome CDs he makes for my commute to class).

Still, I’ll miss my mom’s stuffing on Thanksgiving and my dad’s spaghetti dinner the next day. I’ll miss staying up with everyone and the inevitable late-night raid on leftovers. And I’ll miss the ritual of long hugs hello and longer hugs goodbye.

But even though we won’t be with everyone at my mom’s house, my husband, my sons and I will keep up the tradition. We’ll take turns going around our table, and I’ll say I’m thankful to be in grad school.

And then I’ll say I’m thankful to be in the warmth of the festively decorated, old-world dining room at the Royal Palms Resort.  (I may have said I wasn’t taking a vacation, but I never said I wasn’t taking a break… have a wonderful Thanksgiving!)

My son, Noah, asked me tonight why I’ve been so happy this week. I don’t even remember how I responded because, honestly, I was just relieved that he saw me that way after one of the most stressful weeks of the semester. Long days on campus have limited my time with my sons to waking them each morning, picking them up from school and straightening their covers after late nights in the Cronkite School editing rooms. He simply hasn’t seen me get stressed out.

When I started my blog I told myself that this wouldn’t be a forum for complaining about how hard school is or for whining about missing my old life as a stay-at-home mom. But when I told this to my friend, Venus (a frequent commenter and subject of an earlier post), she called me on it, saying, “Now don’t you go Pollyanna on me– you need to tell the truth!” The Truth. Right. That noble pursuit of all journalists…

So here it is, the truth: going to grad school is hard. Don’t get me wrong; I love it. But it’s hard being away from my kids. It’s hard being out of touch with my friends and family. And it’s hard managing a household, a family and homework, along with all the expectations I have for myself after fifteen years without a professional life.

At first I was handling it with unwavering confidence. I had been cautioned that taking a full load of credits would be insane, but I wanted to be a peer among my cohort and I didn’t want to miss out on anything they would be learning. I went all in and embraced the challenge–the participation in class, the homework, and the distinct role as a older grad student with all my “life experience.”

But after about six weeks, my husband’s business travel kicked up and I found myself burning the candle at both ends. I told myself I had it all under control. In fact, it became very clear very quickly that I was pushing myself too hard.  I’d met my limit, and at the critical point, I sent out a distress call. Or, I should say, a de-stress call.

I contacted my dear friend, Duffy McMahon, who not only is a wonderful person but also happens to be a stress management expert. I sent her a quick email detailing all the dramatic changes in my lifestyle: less sleep, more caffeine, skipped meals, increased pressure from midnight newswriting deadlines, anxiety about being away from my kids and guilt for transferring most of my responsibilities to my husband’s already full plate.

Her first response? “Oh honey, why didn’t you call us for help?” (See my earlier post, “Gettting By with a Little Help… OK, a Lot of Help.”) The truth is I didn’t realize I needed help; I just did what I had to do.

Duffy met with me the next day and we talked through all the ways my life had changed. She challenged me on the pressure I was unnecessarily putting on myself and gave me reasonable strategies on how to manage the stress from being a full-time student:

  • Limit caffeine. It dehydrates you and increases anxiety. (Trust me–this is not a good thing when writing under deadline pressure!)
  • Drink plenty of water and get exercise. Instead of going for a coffee during a break from class or studying, grab a water and take a walk around the block. You’ll be more alert from getting your blood flowing to your brain.
  • Stop “sleep counting” (keeping track of how many hours of sleep you get.) Gauge your sleep health by how you feel rather than by the clock.
  • Build release valves into your routine. Make time in your week to take care of yourself. Whatever makes you feel good–a delicious piece of fresh fruit, a favorite CD, or 15 minutes of Facebooking–work it into your study rituals.
  • Look for the positive in each day. Smiling and laughing is good for your brain. Find comic and emotional relief during your day, whether from a favorite web site, TV show or conversation with a friend. Or just smile for the sake of smiling, as silly as it may feel. Most important, try to end your day with a positive thought. “Today was a great day,” or if that’s too much of a stretch, “I’m going to sleep really well tonight.”
  • Recognize that you don’t have anything to prove to others. Going to school is a personal journey. By measuring your success through others’ eyes, you discount your own definition of achievement.

Thanks to Duffy’s help, I quickly regrouped and got a game plan. I’m drinking less coffee and getting much more sleep. Every Sunday night I give myself a facial while I read my stack of articles for our Monday quiz (go ahead and visualize that for a moment…) and from time to time, I take my work to the salon and get a pedicure while I work.

And the easiest one of her recommendations? Smiling and laughing, especially when I’m with my kids.

When I decided to go to school full time, my husband Erik and I knew we’d have to lean on family to help out. His job has always required him to travel, but it hadn’t been a problem because I was at home with our kids. However, everything we’d heard about the journalism bootcamp told us that it would be hard to be a mom and a student on my own. As soon as I was accepted into the program, he checked his travel schedule and got his mom Ann lined up to help.

Let me just call a spade a spade here: I am the envy of every woman out there who doesn’t get along with her mother-in-law. Ann and I have had a strong relationship since we met almost 25 years ago. She’s been supportive of the choices we’ve made for our careers and our family, and always has been willing to help out when we needed her. She was one of the most vocal people encouraging me to go back to school.

We love having Ann around. She’s warm, generous and lots of fun to be with. My dad once observed, “She takes advantage of opportunity and circumstance,” which means she’s up for anything. She’s willing to check out any event that’s going on in town and take her grandsons along for the ride. Ann helps around the house, makes sure that Erik and I get time to go out together, and even encourages us to sleep late.

Best of all, she loves to cook.

Ann arrived two weeks ago and has made all of the meals for us. We’ve had every kind of comfort food imaginable, from meatloaf, lasagna and classic Midwestern casseroles, to chicken with herbs de Provence and smashed potatoes. We’ve had organic vegetables and fruits from the farmers’ market. And of course, we’ve had ice cream and peanut blossom cookies. She’s prepared enough extra meals and loaves of banana bread to fill my freezer.

I think she and I have spent all of 15 hours together. Because she lives here for three months every winter, she was able to step in and easily take over the kids’ school schedules and run the household. I’d wake up the boys, leave the house at 6:45 a.m. and return at 11 p.m. While I was at school, she made sure homework was done, got clothes ironed for school pictures, and did all the errands. And when the boys got sick, she took them to the doctor and got prescriptions filled. She did all of this with a generous spirit, never once making me feel guilty for being away from my kids.

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Luke, Noah and Grandma Ann

Ann does this for us because she believes that this is the role of extended family.  On top of that, she understands the demands of being an adult student because at the age of forty, she too went back to school.

Ann earned a three-year nursing school degree after high school and worked as a nurse while raising her children. She began to feel that her nursing school program had been too exclusively focused on the art and practice of nursing and that her higher education experience was incomplete. When she learned that a bachelor of science in health arts became available as a satellite program in the Milwaukee area, she decided that not getting an undergrad degree would mean cheating hereself intellectually.

For the next three years, Ann worked full time in the intensive care unit during the day and attended classes in the evenings. She and two colleagues drove an hour each way from their small town to various locations in Milwaukee.

During this time, Ann and her husband divorced. She now was a single parent with a teenage daughter at home. These were some of the toughest times of her life, but she didn’t give up her goal of completing her degree. As Ann and her daughter struggled to keep it all together, she longed to have someone step in and give them some help.

Ann finished her degree and went on to a successful career as a nursing home director and later as a corporate consultant. She later found out that because she’d always been a capable person, her family just figured she could manage on her own. They didn’t feel the need to check with her to see if that were the case.

The lesson for us all is that even though you might be capable of doing everything by yourself, it’s really nice when you don’t have to. Offer help when you can, even if you think it might not be needed.

My husband is home now, and Ann heads back to Wisconsin tomorrow. She’ll arrive for the winter in December, right around finals week. I’m looking forward to having her here, visiting more than we did this time, and of course, inviting her for dinner. It’s my turn to cook.

I’ve been writing this blog for about two months as part of a journalism graduate program and have gotten some valuable feedback. Although it had been 15 years since I wrote anything in a professional capacity and 20 years since I graduated from journalism school, I’m feeling confident again about my ability to write clearly and tell stories. The next challenge, as issued by a professor of mine who is a blogger and former newspaper editor, is to stop being so “1988” and find my voice.

I have to admit I didn’t think I’d be using it as a journalist. The Old School mentality was to let the news speak for itself, to keep your personality from getting in the way and to be objective in your writing.

I’ve come to find out that blogging is a different beast. If my readers are going to care about what I have to say about people who’ve decided to go back to school, I’m going to have to reveal more about myself and my experiences. I don’t plan to write a diary or a memoir, but I do intend to let a little more personality shine through. Hopefully I’ll seem like someone you’d like to get to know.

Along those lines, I spent some time searching the web for kindred spirits, relevant links and groups who might be interested in what I have to say. I found a 53-year-old man who’s a history major at Oregon State, a former marketing exec now studying IT and social media at Penn State and a mom enrolled full-time in a family studies and child development program at Western Michigan. (Coincidentally, she chose the same WordPress template as I did.)

Thanks to direction from my multimedia journalism professor, Dr. Leslie-Jean Thornton, and the strategies learned in my business and future of journalism course with Prof. Tim McGuire, I used my new skills to get around the web and make some connections. I joined a Twitter “twibe” for non-traditional students, found the hashtag they use (#nontrads) and tweeted the twibe– did I really say that?– the link to my blog. I used the google blog search tool shown to me by my newswriting professor, Steve Doig, to find other bloggers who write about being older students and check out their blogrolls. And after reading through their blogs and finding ones I liked, I posted comments to introduce myself with links to my blog. Within minutes, a got a nice response from Mike, the history major, and I shared my tips for spreading the word.

My class recently read Jeff Jarvis‘ book “What Would Google Do?”, and he generously agreed to Skype with us to discuss it. Jarvis might have told me that by linking up with other blogs and pushing mine out via Twitter, I was being “googly”. Honestly, I just wanted to find someone other than my family and classmates who might read my blog.

Now that I’ve learned the lingo (we’re called non-traditional students or non-trads, not “older students” as I’ve been saying), found my voice and met my tribe, hopefully someone out there will hear my stories and I’ll get a job.

The broadcasting professor in my journalism bootcamp frequently refers to the target television news viewer as Mabel. She’s the person producers think of when creating their newscasts. Some newspaper journalists call their muse Maude; I call mine Venus.

Venus is a friend of mine. She’s who I think of every time I write a post. (If you look at my Resources page, you’ll see that she was the first person to leave a comment on my blog.) We met three years ago and know each other pretty well, so I was shocked to find out last spring that she is, in fact, a closet journalist.

I had asked Venus to pick up my kids from school because I had an appointment downtown. I needed to meet with the dean of the Cronkite School to discuss my interest in their graduate program. When I arrived at her house to get my kids, I ended up staying for a margarita– stay-at-home moms enjoy a happy hour cocktail as much as the next guy. I was telling her my plan to go back to school when, out of the blue, she interjected, “You’re living my dream.”

I was stunned. I knew that she had worked at ad agencies just as I had after college, and that we both had left our professional lives to raise our kids, but I had no idea that she’d ever wanted to be a journalist. I’d assumed she was perfectly content with her life as a full-time mom.

Venus went on to tell me that she’d always wanted to be a reporter. She loved writing for her high school paper on Staten Island and had aspired to go to journalism school in Manhattan. Unfortunately, her poor financial circumstances, fear of failure, and lack of a motivating supporter became a dream-killing trifecta. So instead of going to college, Venus hopped on the ferry– insert one of many classic movie visuals here– and got an administrative job at an ad agency. She excelled at her work and eventually rose to a media-buying position typically held by college graduates. After six years, she moved to Phoenix, met her future husband, and started a family.

She told me that for several years she co-wrote and edited an area newsletter for moms with small children but stopped writing it when her children started school. It was then that I remembered the hilarious emails and well-written handouts she’d sent out many times in her role as “room mom.” We had bonded over discussions about politics, news coverage, and grammar pet peeves (don’t get us started), but I’d never recognized that we had a common passion for sharing information. When I asked her if she ever thought about going to college to pursue a career as a journalist, she dismissed it as part of her past.

If only it were that simple. Venus knows in her heart that she is a talented writer, and I’m not giving up until I convince her to use that talent in a career.

So I’ve been sending her links to my blog. I dragged her kicking and screaming onto Facebook, got her signed up on Linkedin and Twitter, and have plans to introduce her to WordPress. I’m incessantly urging her to start a blog because her observations and commentary reveal the natural journalist in her.

Case in point:

Venus and Jenn at U2

Venus (left) and Jennifer at the U2 concert in Glendale

Venus and I went to the U2 concert with our families last week. The following day, she sent me this email:

“J-

Interesting little site. Looks fan-based, but very organized and clean navigation. One of the fan reviews speculated that Bono’s voice was “dried out” from our humidity (or lack thereof, to be more precise.) Everyone thought they were amazing, but these seem to be reviews from people who are seeing the 3rd show on THIS tour. I’d like to hear more from the folks who have seen them numerous times throughout the band’s tour history.”

Face it, Venus. You’re a closet journalist.

You’re assessing web sites for their navigation? We do that in bootcamp. You’re linking to news and commenting on it? We do that on our blogs. You’re evaluating an article’s content and suggesting other angles to cover? We do that when we pitch story ideas.  My hope for you, Venus, is that through reading my blog you will feel inspired to take some step toward your dream. You still can be a professional journalist and have the chance to write for your own Mabel someday.

A final note:  I forwarded this post to Venus to make sure I got the historical facts right. No surprise to me, she returned it with edits in red and comments in green.

Here’s her final comment on my post:

I don’t want to write for Mabel.  I hate her. She eats pork rinds while watching reality TV. She knows what’s happening with Jon and Kate. She doesn’t deserve me.

Experience has made me change my mind.  I don’t want to be a reporter; I want to write for Jon Stewart or Bill Maher or Kathy Griffin and make fun of Mabel.  How do we make that happen?

By taking the first step.

I got my first broadcast assignment yesterday in my multimedia journalism bootcamp. I was given the task of interviewing a cohort member about a talent or hobby she has and creating a video segment about it.

We watched a feature on a student who enjoys painting with watercolors in her free time. Later I overheard someone planning a story on a classmate’s passion for horseback riding. In the end, I was left wondering what talent I had to offer beyond making really good mushroom risotto and writing in mirror image (a skill I developed in high school for passing notes). This struggle to identify my talents was one of the central roadblocks in my choosing a career.

When people are looking to make a career change, they often find themselves asking how they can enter a new field when they lack the skills that would get them a foot in the door. They make the mistake of focusing on skills rather than talent. While both can be developed, skills are learned; talent is something you have within you.

Here are my top five talents:

  • Learner
  • Achiever
  • Communication
  • Input (gathering information)
  • Individualization

Wow, that’s bold of me to declare, isn’t it?

In fact, I didn’t come up with this on my own. I gained this insight by taking the Strengthsfinder 2.0 profile developed by researchers at The Gallup Organization, and it fundamentally changed the way I approached my career search.

Donald O. Clifton, founder of SRI Gallup, and Paula Nelson shifted the conversation about achievement in 1996 with their groundbreaking book “Soar with Your Strengths”. Up to that point, the pervasive American approach to success was “identify your weaknesses and eliminate them” through “practice makes perfect” and “if first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Through years of research, the team at Gallup came up with the paradigm shift of focusing on your intrinsic strengths instead and using them to minimize the effects of your weaknesses. The American Psychological Association later named Clifton “the Father of Strengths Psychology” for the significance of his contribution.

In 2001, Clifton and Marcus Buckingham, a senior vice president of The Gallup Organization, used the research they gathered in interviews with over two million subjects to identify the 34 universal talent themes we possess. They developed a survey through which individuals could find their “Top 5” talent profile, arguing that those themes (our strengths) influence our potential for success far more than those at the bottom of the list (our weaknesses).

I learned about the talent assessment when my husband’s company paid big money to send their management team to a three-day seminar offered by Gallup. Fortunately, Gallup came out with a $19.95 version of the program with their book “Now, Discover your Strengths” and later in “Strengthfinder 2.0“. By using a unique access code concealed within each copy of the book, you can go online and take the assessment to identify your Top 5.

The book includes examples of how others have used their talents successfully in their careers and guides you through applying your Top 5 in your career and personal life.

Taking the Strengthsfinder profile gave me the final piece of the puzzle in my career search. Although I always have had a passion for language and have been interested in sharing people’s stories, it had been so long since my undergrad days in journalism school that I doubted my skills still had value. The insights I gained from reading this book gave me the confidence boost I needed.

I realized that the talent to be a journalist– a person driven to gather information and learn about people’s lives in order to communicate their individual stories– was within me all along.

If this makes you feel you ought to learn about your talent themes, maybe one of your Top 5 talents is responsibility. If it makes you think this kind of information will help you get along with colleagues, perhaps you’re a relator.

What are your talents?

How will you use them to find success?