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Moms Are the Best Students: 5 Tips for Going Back to School

moms make best students back to schoolMidway through my first semester of graduate school at Drake University I found out I was pregnant. My husband and I knew this might happen, and we had a hard time imagining what juggling these two rewarding, yet time-consuming milestones would look like.

Fast-forward nine months, and I was emailing my professor while getting my epidural to let her know I wouldn’t be in class.

True story.

Like any Super Mom and journalist at heart I started on a fact-finding mission. I Googled, “How to go to graduate school and have a baby” and came across a blog post titled: “That’s easy: Just give your child to the mother while you’re at school.”

Cue the epic eye roll I also gave the man that said, “Did you enjoy your vacation,” when asking me about maternity leave.

Turns out that blog post was exactly what I needed to hear. Nothing motivates me more than telling me I can’t do something.

moms make best students grad school drake universityI went on to give birth to a beautiful daughter and finish my degree in two years. 

Since then, I have encouraged a handful of men and women to pursue an advanced degree, and regardless of their life situations each of them have anxieties about the unknown.

My ultimate advice is, “There’s never a perfect time, so just go for it.”

Funny, that’s the exact same advice I got about starting a family (and have since passed along myself).

Motherhood is not an obstacle.

Instead, being a mom taught me the best attributes of leadership – listening, empathy, forgiveness, teaching, and loving.

Here are the tips I learned that I wish I had read in that blog post four years ago. As I look back, most of these can apply to any personal or professional goal you may be facing. Your goals are a way to make yourself a better person, a better mom.

The best way to provide happiness for your child is to first be happy yourself!

  1. Work with your professors. Your professors want you to succeed. They are there to teach you and prepare you and they care about you– sounds like a lot like parenting, right? Be completely open with them about whatever your personal situation is. Share pictures of your children and fun facts about them. Then, if you have to miss class because you’re caring for a sick child it won’t be a shock.
    moms make best students grad school

    I brought my then 3-month-old daughter Riley to my first master’s class to meet my classmates. Here she is with Professor Kelly Bruhn.

  2. Front-load your courses. This is a tactical approach I recommend to any student. I took the maximum credit hours the first semester, and was oh so thankful for that when I had a newborn at home at the end of the program. Think of it as taking advantage of that “first day of school” feeling and diving in head first. Depending on your program, you may have the hardest courses later and you will appreciate not having a heavy workload.
  3. Use your breaks. If you have a night off class, use that break to recharge. One professor told us winter break, fall break, spring break – whatever you have, use it to rest and recharge. When you get back to class you will feel refreshed and motivated. I strategically planned my days off work around times I knew I would have a lot of classwork. I used those days to do homework and spend more time with my child before I knew I would be away for a longer period of time.  
  4. Say NO. In my interview for graduate school they asked me how I would juggle schoolwork on top of working full-time. I told them I learned the power of saying “no.” I was involved with various non-profits and taking on a lot of projects. I dropped those extra activities and started saying “no” to things I didn’t have time for. Once you’re done with school you can pick it back up and return with extra knowledge to help you lead.
  5. Listen to fellow moms. I’ve found this is the most important tip for any aspect of parenthood. Build an arsenal of moms you can text during a 2 a.m. fever. Talk to other women and mothers who have gone through your situation. Develop mentors outside of your circle of friends or professional colleagues who can give you a fresh perspective. Don’t know where to start? I’m happy to be that first voice, just email me at [email protected].

My husband was the best partner in this journey. We completely share every aspect of parenting so not having him would admittedly make all of this harder – but not impossible. If you’re a single parent just pay close attention to #5 above. Build that village before you start the program so you have people to lean on when you need help.

Have any other mamas gone back to school? I’d love to hear your story!


 Niki Smith grew up in Earlham, Iowa and now lives with her husband Ryan and daughter Riley in Johnston. Riley has an observant stare that inspired the Facebook page Riley Is Not Impressed.

Niki is a Digital Media Strategist at Drake University where she runs the university’s main social media accounts. Yes, she was behind the Instagram post that eventually lured Drake the rapper to campus. She is also the director of the world-famous Beautiful Bulldog Contest. She owns an Olde English Bulldog named Dexter, but he is ineligible to compete because she already knows he’s the most beautiful bulldog.

Niki is a two-time graduate of Drake University with a bachelor’s in journalism (2008) and a Master’s in Communication Leadership (2015). See her LinkedIn profile here.

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