Photo: Terri TimpeI get it. Really, I do.

There is an exam to study for in one class, a huge paper due soon in another, endless pages to read and lectures to watch in yet another. The kids need to get to soccer, ballet, and gym classes on time several days this week. The boss has asked for more hours covered because of short staffing. The mirror says “hey, we’re long overdue for a haircut, here,” the animals are all up for a yearly vet visit, and the significant other thinks he or she is invisible.

You might think that I am talking about your week or your life at the moment. Well, yes – and no. This was my life (or a close approximation of it) for the four years that I attended online school. So when I say that I get it, I mean it.

Finding a balance between family, work, faith, and school can be difficult. It may seem like you are being tugged in twenty directions at once. If one area of your life is tugging harder than another and stressing you out, that can throw you off your game in all areas. It is best if the balls that you are juggling all have the same weight. When one is too heavy, it makes for an unbalanced act.

So how did I keep everything even in my uneven world? Truthfully, I wasn’t able to all of the time, but more often than not I succeeded. My secret was staying organized – as well as making a conscious effort to reassess my position every single day – and setting realistic goals.

I returned to the educational world after a 29-year hiatus. I clearly didn’t know what I was getting myself or my family into. About one month into my first round of classes, I was exhausted, crabby, and overwhelmed. I felt that I wasn’t giving any of the areas of my life the proper time or attention they deserved, much less school. It was time for a change.

The first thing that I did was to go buy a large daily calendar book that could show my week at a glance. I used a different colored pen for each class and logged all of my assignment due dates in the calendar, clear through to the end of that first semester. I logged all of my personal appointments and the children’s activities in the calendar as well – even the ones that I knew by heart, just so they would be in front of me when I looked at that calendar, which I did several times each day and then some. In short, I got organized.

I dug out my old daypack. In this I placed all of my books, the calendar, paper, highlighters, and extra pens/pencils. That backpack went everywhere with me, and I mean everywhere. I had it when I went to pick up the kids so that I could read my texts while I waited for them. I had it while I sat on the soccer field, in the gym classes, or at baseball practices. I had it while I waited for our turn at the vet’s office, the doctor’s office, and the dentist’s office. I had it while I got that long overdue haircut. I even had it in the kitchen while I prepared dinner (you would be surprised at how much you can read while you are waiting for water to boil).

At the beginning of every week, I could see far enough ahead to know when I was biting off perhaps a bit more than I could chew. Giving myself permission to reassess my goals daily was an integral part of keeping my life in balance. Just because I had made a decision previously didn’t mean that I had to stick with that decision if it was not going to work out properly. If a week was too crowded, I rearranged. I set realistic goals for myself and understood that it was okay to change that dentist appointment or to put that vet visit off for a day or two. I also learned to say “no” or “not now” when the demands on my time were too great.

I also made it a point to reach out to my fellow classmates whenever I could. I discovered that the more I engaged in the discussions in the online course space, the more I understood the material, and the less isolated I felt. I found that I had more in common with my colleagues than I would have thought, and it gave me great comfort to know that we were all, in a lot of ways, in the same boat.

I also had to come to the realization that asking for help was not a sign of weakness, but was rather a form of including others in my journey. I didn’t have to do this thing alone! My family was thrilled to help. The kids loved the fact that they were “helping mommy go to school” by folding their own clothes, pitching in with the cleaning, or helping out with meals. In this way, the whole family was invested in my education. Instead of feeling like I was neglecting them for my studies, I brought them into the whole process.

Four years later, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from WSU. It was a monumental victory for all of us, and the celebration was epic! In addition, I got the added bonus of being invited to join the Virtual Mentor program and have been a grateful member of that team ever since.

Some things have changed since I was in school just eight short years ago. There are probably better organizational tools and calendars that you can take advantage of, but I personally still use the same style calendar book to this day. Some textbooks are now exclusively online, so you can’t trudge around with your textbooks in your backpack, but you can sure trudge around with your laptop in it and use your cellphone as a personal hotspot for wi-fi.

What hasn’t changed is that venturing out into the academic world – whether you are fresh out of high school or returning after 29 years – is an event that can be a challenge no matter what your personal life looks like. I encourage you to take time for yourself, assess areas where you might need to make some changes, and to stay connected with your fellow students – all of which may aid in your work towards attaining balance and maintaining that juggling act. And remember: If you do drop a ball, all you have to do is pick it up again – but only if you want to.

Terri Timpe, Global Campus Virtual Mentor