Back to School

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2007

It takes some juggling, but working full time is no longer a barrier to furthering your education-especially here in Florida, where the average age of a grad student is 35.

Local higher education institutions realize adult students with jobs and families need flexibility, and they're responding with night classes, online classes and "a click-and-brick combination." The choices can be dizzying, with schools such as the University of Phoenix, Webster University and Argosy University jumping state lines to set up local campuses, not to mention the established institutions that have long been serving the business community. The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee now offers 12 master's programs, while Manatee Community College offers 3,000 courses that cover all facets of business or manufacturing through its Corporate and Community Development division.

We talked with five working businesspeople about their choice to go back to school and what they hope the future will bring.


For decades, vivacious Sharon Katzman has thrived in fashion retail. Her eight-year-old IOPTICS is an exuberant boutique of high-style eyewear in Sarasota's Burns Court that attracts clients who don't mind shelling out over a thousand dollars for the latest fashion-forward designer frames with graduated prescription lenses.

But keeping a licensed optician who could fit and dispense eyeglasses was a challenge. So Katzman, who hadn't been in a classroom since she was 18, decided to get her optician's license.

"I'd heard Hillsborough Community College had an online degree so I went up to check it out," she says. "They scooped me up immediately. When I got home, I thought, 'What have I done?'"

Katzman was a full-time student for two-and-a-half years while running her store. "I started drinking coffee again," she says. "I discovered Red Bull. I canceled all my magazine subscriptions-my W, my Style. I would come home from work and study. Sundays I stayed online all day."

Ninety percent of her coursework was online through Web TV and videoconferencing, "so I could do it in my pajamas," she says. E-mail study groups gave her the extra support she needed. Still, she had to enroll at MCC to take math. "I never had algebra, so all summer I was taking classes and being tutored," she says.

The day she passed her exams she called her Web designer and told him to put "Florida Licensed Optician" behind her name. Then she broke out a bottle of champagne and celebrated with her husband, Steven.

Katzman says it's all paid off, with less stress about staffing and more control of her operations. "I gave myself a nice raise, too," she says. -Susan Burns


1. Restructure and prioritize. "I couldn't work 60 hours a week as normal so I hired another employee."

2. Keep to a schedule. "I dedicated one entire day to school."

3. Eliminate distractions. "I gave up magazines and books."

4. Set up a dedicated office. "My husband's studio is at home, so it was important I had my own space."

5. Try to find a program where most of your work is online.


Five years ago, James Schulz, who was Sarasota County's communications support manager and a doctoral candidate in education and organizational leadership at Argosy University, had a school assignment to interview a top county administrator.

As fate would have it, the administrator decided Schulz, 42, would be perfect for a county job called criminal justice policy coordinator.

Schulz, who always wanted to be in public administration, took that job-which he describes as being the "county's eyes and ears for the criminal justice system," including its drug treatment programs and the courts.

But he stayed in school, often squeezing class in on weekends and vacations and taking some week-long courses that cover a semester in eight-hour-a-day classes.

"It's not the time, it's the information overload," Shulz says. "The hard part is doing your job justice and doing doctoral-level schoolwork, which requires tons of research."

Schulz finished his classroom work and has been working on his dissertation, a 100-plus-page paper on change, leadership and the criminal justice system. Money for school came partly from the GI Bill, but mostly out of his pocket. "I used to keep a running tally on my desk," he says. "I could have had a plasma TV in every room of the house" for what school cost.

Schulz doesn't expect his doctorate of education to increase his salary. "It's already paid off once," he says, referring to the position he was offered at the interview.

Still, his career opportunities have expanded. "After accumulating experience in government I could teach or go into consulting," Schulz says. "There are greater opportunities in county government and the court system."


1. Get financially prepared. Grad school isn't cheap, and it's harder to get financial aid when you're a professional who makes decent money.

2. Understand the time commitment. "I've used up a lot of vacation time and weekends to do this."

3. Make sure you have the support of your family and the chain of command at work. Let your boss know you aren't going to work that many 10-hour days. With the right support team, "It's almost like a marathon. With all these people cheering you on, it does help you get to the finish line."


When Mike Lawless graduated from Manatee High School 20 years ago, attending college full time wasn't an option because he didn't have the money. He kept his high school job at Publix, rising through the ranks to become a store manager in 2001.

"It's always been a personal goal to be the first in my family to get a college degree," Lawless says. Taking a class or two at a time, he earned an associate's degree at Manatee Community College.

Lawless, 37, enrolled last fall at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to earn a bachelor's degree in social sciences. "I want to be a role model for my son," he says. "Going back to school was more about personal fulfillment."

Lawless works 50 hours a week, sometimes until midnight, managing 180 employees at a Publix in North Port. He takes Wednesdays off to attend an evening class and another that meets four times a semester. He takes a third course online. Every night, after his seven-year-old son goes to sleep, he studies for several hours. He plans to finish his bachelor's degree in 2009.

Lawless chose social science rather than business administration because it interests him more and will give him flexibility. "After I retire from Publix, I can go back and get my teaching certificate," he says.


1. "If you're thinking about it, just do it. Otherwise you'll talk yourself out of it."

2. "I never used a Palm Pilot before, but I use it now because I work 50 hours a week and I'm involved in charities. Always block out time for study."

3. Choose a course of study you like. "I'm interested in what I'm studying and that makes all the difference."

4. Make friends with other students. They're good for support and reducing stress.

5. See what your company will pay for. "Publix wouldn't pay for a social sciences degree, but they did pay for a class in cultural diversity and a course in sign language."


Michelle Hershey, 29, enjoyed teaching third grade at Daughtrey Elementary in Manatee County but wanted to try something new. "Teaching is very stressful. It took me four years to be comfortable," she says.

Hershey decided to pursue a master's in counseling at Argosy after picking up a flyer about the school. Flexible scheduling that included online classes enabled her to work while she went to school. Hershey says other programs she looked at would have required traveling, which would have been difficult to combine with teaching.

To earn 48 credit hours in two years, she attended school full time in the summer and took two to three classes during the school year. She also had a tutoring job twice a week. Online classes allowed her do the work when she had time. "I knew I would be dedicated," Hershey says. "Assignments are posted online and you have to respond to at least one other person's work" for it to be considered completed.

There were financial sacrifices. Hershey took out student loans to cover the $40,000 fee for a master's degree. And she had to give up time with family and friends.

Hershey graduated in June with a 4.0 grade point average and is now working as a guidance counselor at another Manatee school. Her job pays about $4,000 more than she made as a teacher. "It's not as much as I'd hoped for," she says. "But I definitely think getting my master's was worth it."


1. Establish a schedule. "I set goals for the week and came up with a daily schedule. I studied from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. just about every night. I did a little bit of work every day instead of spending a large chunk of time on the weekends."

2. Put test information on index cards. "I'd keep them with me and flip through them when I had a free moment."


Sierra Tomlinson became an oncology nurse after watching her mother tutor a young student who was too sick with cancer to attend school. But after working for two years, she wanted to do more with her career.

"I thought about medical school but decided it's not for me," says Tomlinson, 25, who now works at Sarasota Memorial Hospital coordinating insurance in the oncology department.

On the recommendation of a colleague, she looked into programs at Webster University in Sarasota and settled on the MBA program. "An MBA will give me flexibility," Tomlinson says. "I didn't want to narrow myself."

Tomlinson plans to advance into hospital administration when she graduates in December 2008. "I know hospitals well and I still feel some attachment there," she says.

She was a little intimidated starting the MBA program because she had not taken any business classes as an undergraduate. "I started with one class," says Tomlinson. "Two is a bit trickier."

Tomlinson works a nine-to-five schedule and comes in early twice a week so she can leave at 4:30 to get to class. She's in the classroom eight hours a week and spends six hours a week studying.

She's had to give up board work for a professional association and spends less time with her husband. But she's not complaining. "I've always been a busy person, so it hasn't been too strenuous," says Tomlinson.

Her employer is paying for most of her classes and Tomlinson estimates she'll have to spend about $7,000 out of pocket.


1. "Just start out taking one class at a time and see how it goes."

2. "I make some kind of generic weekly plan, with time marked out for my classes, when I'll be dedicated to housework, school work and work. I try to do homework when my husband isn't in the house because it's less of a distraction."

3. Do schoolwork instead of taking a lunch break at work. You can get quite a bit done in 30 minutes if you shut your office door. 

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