the National Center for Health Statistics, the median age of American
men at the time of divorce from their first marriage is 33, and for
women it’s 31. This is a time when most people are settled in their
lives — they probably own a home, have kids, and/or have a stable
career. Divorce can initiate some dramatic changes in this lifestyle,
however. It makes you re-evaluate yourself and what you’re doing with
your life. It may have forced you to realize that the job you’ve had for
20 years wasn’t fulfilling; you only hung on for the money and the
insurance benefits for your family. Perhaps you’ve stayed at home all
these years taking care of your children while your spouse worked, and
now you have a 10-year-old university degree and no work experience to
back it up.
had been a teacher in Montana for two years when she moved to Chicago
to be with the man she would marry. At that time, teaching jobs were
scarce, so she settled for office work. “The job wasn’t fulfilling; it
just filled a hole,” she says. “My relationship at the time was much
more the focus of my life than my career. But that all changed after we
separated and eventually divorced.”
and her husband had had several trial separations over four years. “I
was devastated,” she says. “I was in therapy for a couple of years, and
that really helped me refocus.” Then she was “very grateful” to find a
job as an executive assistant at a small firm. “I was kind of numb — a
walking wounded — so I was glad for a nice, safe job that demanded very
little of me. I dragged myself to work every day, dragged myself home,
and cried. You grieve for your marriage like you do a death, and it
takes a long time.” After a while, Catherine started to feel better, and
she recognized that the work was simply not challenging enough. “I
began to feel bored and trapped,” she says. “Then one day, I had a
revelation: I realized that the only thing stopping me from trying
something new and exciting was fear. Fear of failure, fear I wouldn’t
make it, and fear that I wasn’t good enough. At this point, I was in my
mid-30s, and I was terrified. I decided at one point that I had to live
the next 40 years of my life anyway, so why not do something creative
and important to me? Once I phrased it to myself that way, it was like a
door flew open, and I went back to school.”
be successful at going back to school after separation or divorce, you
must carefully consider your emotional status, the time commitment, the
level and quality of effort required by the course or program, and your
abilities in relation to those issues.
divorce, we’re in such a hurry to get our lives back on track,” says
Rob Kaufman, a licensed clinical social worker in Encino, CA and founder
and executive director of a support group called Divorce Dialogue. As a
result, he adds, people tend to make impulsive or radical changes in
their lives before they’re emotionally ready. He suggests people take
their time — it may take a year or two — to decide if they really want
or need to return to school.
Business College in Chicago helps students deal with the fears
associated with going back to school with a required, first-quarter
class called “College Success.” The course addresses study skills, time
management, stress management, financial resources, managing
relationships, and tapping into college and community resources.
has been my experience,” says Jill Ahlswede, a counselor at
Northwestern Business College’s main campus in Chicago, “that the
majority of students returning to school following a life transition,
such as divorce, are often struggling to regain a sense of control in
their lives and often feel conflicted about fulfilling all their
responsibilities and commitments.” She adds that 35% of the College’s
enrollment are returning students.
can ease any anxiety you may have if you stop thinking that going back
to school means immediately shipping yourself off to Harvard University
for a Ph.D. (unless, of course, that’s what you really want to do).
Sometimes, anxiety can blow your anticipation out of proportion —
“especially if you had a previous negative experience,” says Dr. Philip
Morvitz, a licensed psychologist in private practice in Brooklyn, NY.
“It becomes a bigger obstacle than the actual situation,” he says.
it one step at a time; there’s no deadline. Think about what you like
to do or what you’ve always wanted to do, and how you can do it with as
little stress as possible. Will it require a full-time program to learn
the skills you need, or will you only need to take a few night courses?
And if you don’t know what you want to do with the rest of your life, a
career counselor can point you in the right direction — and let you
know what steps to take to achieve your goal. Career counseling can be
helpful for those already in, as well as those returning to, the
workforce. Your separation or divorce may have affected your standard of
living, and a career counselor can help you decide if you need to
upgrade your skills in order to increase your salary-earning potential.
you’re looking for a new career, most of the work available these days
involves computers. Vincent Norton, vice president of enrollment
services at Robert Morris College’s main campus in Chicago, says
enrolment in the College’s computer systems programs is growing rapidly
to meet the demands of today’s job market. These courses aren’t just
basic Microsoft Office courses: they cover topics such as Windows NT,
Novell Netware, and Quark XPress, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator
— programs used extensively in the graphic and website design fields.
help jump-start your new career, many community colleges offer job
placement services after you complete your program. And some offer
internship programs, which allow you to gain valuable on-the-job
experience before you graduate. An internship can make you more
marketable when you start applying for jobs, or it could turn into a
full-time job later.
Choosing a new career
you’re considering a new career path, take this opportunity to design
your own future. It’s fine to seek advice from friends or family, but
don’t let them pressure you into doing what they think you should be
doing. It’s your life, so make choices that will empower and enrich you
rather than blindly following someone else’s plans for your life. Truly
taking responsibility for how your life works out can be very scary, but
it’s the surest route to happiness and self-fulfillment.
may feel that you’re too old to start something new in your life, but
consider Bill’s story: At 54, he started a brand new life after his
divorce from his second wife, and now at 59, has a new and fulfilling
was a restaurant manager for 19 years, and had gone back to college
part-time during that time in hopes of increasing his chances for
finding a new job that related to the food industry. “I thought a new
job should be tied into what I did because it was too late in life to
totally change jobs,” he says.
stress of his divorce in 1992 had left him too ill to continue his
restaurant job. After seeking psychological counseling and living on
disability insurance for almost two years, Bill talked to a career
counselor at a local community college. He realized that it wasn’t too
late in life to switch careers, and decided to enroll in a two-year
medical records technology program. No more late nights at the
restaurant and coming home with grease stains on his tie. Bill is now
very happy with his new career as the supervising manager of the medical
records department at one of the largest hospitals in his city.
say that going back to school isn’t easy would be an understatement.
Catherine describes her experience with a radio broadcasting program at a
community college: “I was in school full-time for nine months. It was
the most intense work I’ve ever done — much more intense than getting
my undergraduate and post- graduate degrees. When you’re in school at
37, it’s very different than when you’re 20. There’s no beer drinking;
there’s no hanging around. It’s all business. I was very focused, and
I’m sure that my maturity was what led me to be so successful. I wasn’t
there to mess around; I was there to work.”
had a similar experience. “You don’t have a personal life,” he admits.
“You go to school, go to work, and go home to study, and that’s it. For
two years, I didn’t really do anything else. You really need to spend
that time on working and studying. It’s really tiring physically.”
you’re feeling overwhelmed — or think you will be — talk to a school
counselor, who can tell if you’re eligible to get credit for your
real-life experiences (which could cut down on your course requirements)
or refer you to other helpful services at the college or in your
community. Ahlswede says that taking advantage of these and other
services “plays a substantial role in students’ satisfaction and success
with the college experience.”
something else you can do to reduce stress: “Don’t overload yourself,”
recommends Carol Blauw Smith, counselor and director of Crossroads, an
organization in Schaumburg, IL that helps people learn new coping
skills, increase their self-esteem, and set new life-enhancing goals.
She recommends that you take one class at a time, if necessary. “It may
take you longer to complete your degree,” she says, “but you won’t feel
as stressed out.” Blauw Smith speaks from personal experience: after her
own divorce, she went back to school to earn her master’s degree in
may be easier for you to manage if you consider enrolling in a program
such as The Weekend College at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles,
where classes for its two accredited bachelor’s degree programs are
spread out over 18 non-consecutive weekends per year.
Finding emotional support
very important to have a support network cheering you on while you’re
in school. You’ll need encouraging words from friends, family, and —
most importantly — yourself to help you through.
got a ton of support from friends and family,” Catherine says. “I was
also very motivated to do it.” There were many days, however, when she
was worn out — she had to ride the bus for three hours to and from
campus every day — and she had a very low income at the time. Catherine
says, “People kept saying ‘You’ve got guts,’ but I didn’t feel like I
had guts. I just felt driven. I had to grab this chance, or I’d play it
safe for the rest of my life, and I didn’t want to do that.”
kept Bill going? “Sheer determination,” he says. “When you’re truly
convinced that this is what you want to do, that will keep you going. If
you’re not truly convinced, it’s really easy to drop out. I set a goal
for myself and worked towards it. You have to be focused on your goal.”
from your fellow students and teachers also helps to keep you
motivated. “When you’re with people doing the same thing that you all
love, you get such a groove going,” Catherine notes. “Our faculty enjoys
people with a broad spectrum of experience,” says Peter Awn, the dean
of Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where the students’
ages range from late 20s to early 40s. “Instead of feeling like they’re
the oldest in their class,” he adds, “students find that they become a
real asset in the classroom.”
emotional support network goes beyond your teachers and classmates.
Prepare your family, friends, and even your ex-spouse for your decision
to take classes. Tell them what kind of changes you anticipate, and how
that may impact upon them. Ask yourself what you’ll need from them while
pursuing your education, then ask for their help and support.
you qualify, you could receive financial assistance from a variety of
sources. It’s best to talk to the financial aid office of the schools
you’re considering and ask them what kind of financial assistance
programs are available at their institution.
resource is the United States Department of Education’s The Student
Guide, which outlines the major Student Financial Assistance (SFA)
Programs: Federal Pell Grant, Stafford Loans, PLUS Loans, Consolidation
Loans, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs),
Federal Work-Study, and Federal Perkins Loans. According to the Guide,
some schools don’t participate in these financial-aid programs, and some
programs are restricted to either undergraduate or graduate students.
you have any questions about financial aid, you can call the Federal
Student Aid Information Center at (800) 433-3243 (or TDD for the
hearing-impaired at  730-8913), or you can download The Student
Guide at the U.S. Department of Education’s website, which is located
people — particularly women — also seek financial assistance for
retraining or going back to school through their divorce settlement. If
it isn’t too late, talk to your lawyer about including that in your
back to school is an exciting transition in your life with many
important factors to consider. Juggling work, school, and taking care of
your children (if you have any) won’t be easy, but you have the power
to do it without tearing your hair out. Just remember why you wanted to
upgrade your skills: self-fulfillment, happiness, financial security,
self-confidence — there are many reasons to go back to school.
who is now a radio announcer for a major market radio station, offers
these words of encouragement: “My advice is what Joseph Campbell said:
‘Follow your bliss.’ Choose something that makes you joyous from inside
then the opportunities will come to you. If you’ve always wanted to be a
hairdresser or woodworker, take classes. Do a little bit at a time; you
don’t have to completely immerse yourself. It can be such fun, and it
expands your heart. You get so much positive feedback that your
self-esteem just flowers. Whether or not you make a big career out of
it, or whether or not you make a lot of money, you should have fun.
Finally, at 39, I feel like I’m where I should be. And that’s a