After four semesters at The University of Texas, Jarratt Kelso still didn’t know what he wanted to be.
So Kelso, then 20, left school and traveled for two years, supporting himself by working as a waiter, busboy and bartender. Going back to school was a vague thought, one of many possibilities.
In Seattle, he met Kasey McCaleb. They married in 1998, and in 2000, Jackson was born, followed by Sydney in 2003.
He continued to work in restaurants. The nighttime hours were OK when the children were young, but when they started school, he would rarely see them. And Kelso wanted more job stability and a higher income.
“I knew going back to school was my best option,” he said.
In 2004, he enrolled at the University of Houston, joining a growing number of adults returning to college. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, 24.8 percent of college students in the United States were 30 or older in 2008. That’s up from 21 percent in 2000. Many of those are parents.
“This time around, it’s simple,” said Kelso, who earned a bachelor’s in geology and will graduate with his master’s in geology in the spring. After raising children, keeping up with the school work is easy, he said.
When Maria Irshad’s husband, Khurram, was out of work in 2009, she returned to school to get a master’s of public administration.
“The only way I could make more money was to get a master’s degree, which would lead to better job opportunities,” she said.
She had received a journalism degree from the University of Houston in 1997 and worked as a journalist in Pakistan and Dubai before shifting careers and, eventually, working for the city of Houston in parking management.
“I had always wanted to get a master’s degree,” she said. “But in the communications field, it felt like it was money I was spending without getting a return.”
She said her experience gives her an advantage in school because she’s able to apply real-life examples to anecdotal lessons. She aspires to be a parking director or city manager.
To get there, though, she has had to make sacrifices. That means spending less time with her 4-year-old daughter, Zayna. Irshad’s husband is working a contract job overseas, so a babysitter stays with Zayna. When Irshad leaves for long stretches, Zayna gets clingy.
“It’s hard,” Irshad said. “But I hope she’ll understand and forgive me someday.”
They do homework together. When homework is done and exams studied for, they go to the park or a museum. Fridays are movie nights.
“If the laundry falls behind, it falls behind. We’ll buy more clothes if we need them that bad,” she said. “You have to prioritize. I feel worn out and exhausted must of the time, but it will be worth it.”
Dr. Sandi Lemming, another adult who juggled family and school, is now a physician and partner at Village Family Practice.
Having a supportive spouse and family who pick up the slack at home makes a big difference, she said. She also had paid household help.
While she was working toward her master’s of business administration at the University of North Texas in 1985, Lemming gave birth to Ben. She was pregnant with twins Chris and Mike when she graduated in ’86. She and her husband, Jim, moved to California, and Lemming was a stay-at-home mom and volunteer. She enjoyed it. But her career had veered off course.
“For years it struck me that I hadn’t done what I wanted to do,” she said.
Before they moved back to Houston in 1993, she talked to Jim about going to medical school. It’s something she’d always wanted to do, but the years of school had intimidated her.
Now, she knew the time was inconsequential.
“It’s part of the journey. It’s never too late,” she said.
That mature perspective can help students who are also parents. They have to get their homework done so they can spend time with family or do chores. While they can’t spend much time socializing with classmates, they have something better waiting at home, they said.
At 36, Lemming entered Baylor College of Medicine. She and the kids would sit at the kitchen table and do homework together. The first year of residency was hardest, Lemming said. After working acute-care cases for 36 hours, she would be fatigued.
“But when you sit back and look at it, it’s not that hard to balance. People do it every day,” she said.