Balancing Act

March 1, 2013

How four working professionals manage college, family, mortgages and sleep.

By Beau Denton / Photography by Barbara Banks


It's no secret that a college degree is essential in a competitive marketplace—people with a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2011 study by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, earn a lifetime average of 84 percent more than high school graduates. But for many, a degree is postponed by jobs, family obligations and military service. Here’s how four full-time professionals took the plunge and became full-time students.


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Donald Hock

Age: 34

Studying for: Associate’s degree in information technology

School: Keiser University

Job: Support specialist at Datum Corporation

Where are you from originally? Michigan. Go, Red Wings!

Why did you go back to school? IT is an ever-growing field and it changes all the time, so I want to stay right with it.

What led you to this point? After high school I worked as a mechanic in the Marine Corps for four years. I had a young family, we moved to Florida, and I went to work in an automotive shop. I hit a hard spot and lost my family, and I wanted something stable that my kids will look up to.

What’s your class schedule like? I take one class a month, three nights a week, for four hours a night.

Where do you hope to be in five years? With a bachelor’s degree, working on my master’s, narrowing my career view to the security field. And with my house paid off.

What keeps you going when the schedule is overwhelming? The look on my kids’ faces when I show them my grades, and an understanding wife who keeps hitting home not to give up—I  remarried about a year ago. I’m almost there, I can see the finish line, and she reminds me that bettering myself will better my family.

How do you spend your free time? Fishing and hunting.

Where does your work ethic come from? My father was a Marine, and going into the corps instilled habits in me: Be the best you can, do the work, never quit. Always show up 10 to 15 minutes early and stay until the work is done.

How much sleep do you get? About four hours on school nights, maybe six without school.

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Brian Neeley

Age: 21

Studying for: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, eventually a master’s with double concentration in finance and management

School: University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee

Job: Sales and service specialist at Bank of America

Why psychology? It’s more for personal fulfillment. A couple years ago I was a computer science major and very unhappy, and I figured I might as well make a complete change.

What are you learning? Why people do what they do. One of my favorite topics is groupthink, how, within a mass of people, you can lose your identity and do things you would never consider doing as an individual.

Extracurriculars? I’m a USF Ambassador; we represent the school to the community. I’m also in the competitive rowing club and a student government senator for the College of Arts and Sciences.

What’s your schedule like? First thing is rowing. We’re out on the bay at six in the morning, five days a week. A lot of students think we’re crazy, but it’s an incredible workout and extraordinarily peaceful. Then I get ready for work, 9 to 5, and after work there’s a class or student government.

How do you manage your schedule? Certain times are dedicated to certain activities. There’s always so much more I want to get done, but if you burn the candle all the time at full-tilt, you’ll never make it. I try to burn it as quickly as I can without getting my fingers singed.

What do you do with your free time? Running when I get the chance, reading a good book, watching a movie, singing with the church choir. I don’t think I ever slow down, I just change activities.

Where do you see yourself in five years? I enjoy banking, and I’d love to continue to move up and do more with that. My bachelor’s will be finished this spring, and I’m hoping to move on to my master’s come fall.

Advice for other working students? You can’t ever forget to take care of yourself. Step away from everything once in a while, take a vacation, do something that’s not part of your everyday routine.

How much sleep do you get? At least six hours, and I shoot for eight most nights. It doesn’t always work.

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Patricia Thomas Bolden

Age: 41

Studying for: Registered Nursing (R.N.) degree, eventually a master’s in healthcare administration

School: State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota

Job: Licensed practical nurse (L.P.N.) at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Sarasota

Why did you go back to school? It was a job requirement. In Florida, more facilities are only hiring R.N.s instead of L.P.N.s. Also, raises for nurses have not kept up with the cost of living. I’m making the same pay I made in 2001.

What’s your plan? I’m getting my prerequisites at SCF so I can get my R.N. and my bachelor’s in technology management at another school online. It’s an accelerated self-pace, so I should have my R.N. by August.

In five years? Hopefully I’ll have my master’s in healthcare administration and my R.N. I want to get my foot in the door at CAE, a global company that makes simulators for the healthcare arena.

What’s your schedule like? I work 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. There’s no way I can do the traditional L.P.N. to R.N. transitional program, which requires a lot of time on campus, so I do as much online as possible.

The biggest challenge? The cost. Financial aid through SCF has helped me out tremendously.

What keeps you focused? Being constantly reminded of where I want to be in five years. That small paycheck I get every two weeks is a good reminder, too.

Do you meet other nurses in the same position? Yes, the environment at my current facility is all about continuing education. Sixty to 65 percent of the nurses there are pursuing degrees.

How do you spend your free time? I walk a lot, and I’m a numbers girl, so I do puzzles. But I have three children, and my husband and I have seven between us, so that keeps me busy.

How much sleep do you get?

Five to six hours on a good night, and the occasional nap.

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Charles Cole III

Age: 36

Studying for: Bachelor’s degree in business management, eventually a master’s in business administration

School: Eckerd College

Job: Technical support representative at UTC Fire & Security

Why did you go back to school? If résumé A and résumé B have the same experience, they’re going to pick the one with the highest education. My company pays my tuition up to $8,000 a year, so I decided to take advantage of that.

Why business management? I told an engineer I was interested in studying electrical engineering, and she said, “You could do that, or you could get an M.B.A. and manage a whole group of engineers.” With this degree, I can start a bakery or be a farmer.

What’s the hardest part? Organizing my time between family, work and school. I have a five-year-old girl and a baby boy.

What’s your class schedule like? 5:30 to 10:30 two nights a week. I get home at 11, so those days are shot. The rest of the week we try to eat dinner together; then I do my homework after I put my daughter to bed. Most people get off work and go get a drink or watch TV, but I don’t.

How is this different from past school experiences? I was in the Army from 2000 to 2005, and my associate’s degree was at a pass or fail automotive school. Eckerd is different. It was hard for me to get the theory of a liberal arts education, but now I see that they teach you how to learn and how to give your knowledge in a way that people understand.

How do you stay motivated? It’s like starting a 10K race. About halfway through you’re like, “This might not have been a good idea,” but the goal is there and you can push yourself to the end. Then you get a short break before starting the next semester.

What’s next? I’m going to go right into getting my M.B.A. I could move into a management role, or maybe start my own business. I’ve owned businesses in the past, though, and I think it’s easier to run somebody else’s.

Any advice for someone thinking about going back to school? Like I tell people I work with, the best time to start is now. I started in 2005 and ended up taking a break until 2011. Looking back, I could have had my doctorate by now.

How much sleep do you get? Not enough.

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