Musical selection: "Largo al Factotum" from The Barber of Seville, Gioacchino Rossini, courtesy of Classical MIDI Archives, © 1999 Pierre R. Schwob

The Barber of Seville is Rossini's comic opera revolving around a character named Figaro, a barber who is also a jack-of-all-trades. Figaro will not only style your wig or give you a shave, he'll also do a little bloodletting (a common medical practice of the time performed by barbers as well as by doctors), run errands, deliver messages (especially of the romantic kind), and other odds and ends. "Largo al factotum" means "Make way for the jack of all trades," in which Figaro sings about how everyone wants him all at the same time (sound familiar?) "Figaro, I need a shave." "Figaro, fix my wig." "Figaro, come here." "Un a la volta (one at a time)!" Figaro laments.

The following article was originally published under the title "Juggling Nursing School and Family" in the Sept.Oct. 1997 edition of IMPRINT, the publication of the National Student Nurses Association. This is also the original version of the article.

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Some people react to midlife by rushing to lovers, plastic surgeons, or divorce attorneys. Others trade in the family sedan or station wagon for a motorcycle or a flashy red two-seater convertible. Then there are those of us, who, after raising our families and finding our present jobs unsatisfying, return to school to embark upon new careers. For some of us, that means nursing school.

When a nursing instructor looks out over his or her new class for the first time, every semester it seems there are a few more gray hairs, bifocals, and crow's feet among the faces. This is because nursing school attracts many mature "recycled" students who face numerous challenges not usually encountered by their younger associates. Juggling nursing school with family responsibilities or a full-time job -- and usually both -- is a difficult and often overwhelming task. The good news is that there's a vast difference between difficult and impossible! This article is intended to help the 35+ student survive and even thrive on the challenge.

    First of all, learn to be flexible. It's an important part of being a nurse. Kids will fight or pester you as you try to figure out a care plan. The baby sitter may call in sick, your care might break down, or you might have to work overtime on the day of your final exam.

    If you're taking your courses at college, take it slowly -- even one class a semester. It's going to take you longer, but you don't have the luxury of having the time to study several courses at once. You may be able to transfer any necessary previous college level courses (English, math, or psych, for example). Also, inquire into CLEP, a program which give college credit for life experiences such as work, travel, or independent study.

    The student who works outside the health care field may encounter skepticism from classmates and even some instructors. They may even ask, "You seem to have it pretty good at your present job. Why do you want to go into nursing?" It's an unfortunate opinion which says something about their attitude toward nursing.

    Many working students are concerned whether or not they should let their boss and co-workers in on their secret. This is a highly individual decision which depends greatly on your work arrangements, how much school will affect your work, and how well you get along with your boss. Some bosses are supportive, but bear in mind that a boss's job, as well as yours, is to act in the best interests of the firm. It's easier if your going to school has a minimal impact on your job performance.

    Employers also vary greatly in the flexibility regarding time off. Be creative in using your vacation time. You might only need half a vacation day to attend an extended clinical or you might skip lunch to leave an hour early for last minute preparations for a test. You may have to take a shorter vacation to save your vacation time for school activities that might conflict with your work schedule. Use your lunch hour to study or even get in a little lab practice if your job is close enough to school.

    The student who is already working in health care has a distinct advantage. Not only do they have related experience, but their employer is more likely to be supportive of their educational goals. Every job, however, has attributes that are valuable in nursing. A salesperson or receptionist, for example, needs excellent communications skills to deal with angry or difficult customers. Other positions may require analytical, critical, or creative thinking skills, manual dexterity, mathematical aptitude, attention to details, or the ability to set priorities, all of which are desirable qualities for a nurse. Use your job skills to your advantage in your education.

    Going to school will also have a profound impact on your home life. If you pride yourself on keeping an immaculate house, you'll need to lower your standards and learn to ignore the smudges on the bathroom mirror or the dust under the bed. Don't try to be Martha Stewart (who has no concept of reality anyway). If you're that exceedingly rare person whose family is willing to lend a hand, by all means, let them! They can vacuum or run the dishwasher, but only you can study for your pharmacology test. But they might not always give you the support you need. It will not occur to them that no law forbids them to change a light bulb or walk the dog. You'll come home from clinical to a sink piled high with dirty dishes, an overflowing laundry hamper, and two chapters you have to study for tomorrow. If you can afford to hire a cleaning service or to send out your laundry, the investment could well be worth it in saved time.

    Finally, and most important of all, take time for yourself every day. THIS POINT CANNOT BE STRESSED ENOUGH! Even half an hour to take a bath, work out on your exercise bike, or read something without the word "nursing" in it can do wonders to refresh you physically, mentally, and emotionally (See SAVE YOUR SANITY IN HALF AN HOUR.)

It is encouraging to see more evening nursing programs, but nursing schools need to be more aware of and address the needs of the student who is trying to balance three different and often conflicting roles. For instance, the evening LPN program at our local vocational school runs for 2 years as compared to one for the day program. It is unrealistic to suggest that working students cut back to part-time or quit altogether. Most of them need the income and benefits until they can get that first nursing job. The instructor who treats the working student with a little extra patience and emotional support will be rewarded with one who readily gives 200% to his or her nursing studies.

Going to nursing school while having to work and care for a family requires stamina, resourcefulness, and dedication -- all of which are prerequisites for being a nurse. The demands are numerous on nursing students in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, but their maturity is an invaluable asset in helping to meet them. Recycled students, no matter what the field, are highly motivated and usually excellent students. They bring a wealth of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences to enrich the nursing profession.

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