For most students, September marks the beginning of a new school year. Not so for those at AU, however. Because our school is not run on a semester system, and because courses can be started on the first of any month, many of us are taking courses year round, or, if we do take breaks, they do not necessarily coincide with the standard summer vacation that most students enjoy from May through August.
What this means is that an AU student’s education is paced very differently, and the overall experience of university life is greatly altered. Not only do we differ in not attending classes on campus, but we also do not live by the same schedule as other university students. This has both advantages and disadvantages.
For many students, summer means a summer job. These are a curious means of employment, more akin to contract work than regular employment. One barely has time to learn the ropes and begin to settle into the work environment, when the summer is over and studies resume. A benefit of this is that the student may have the opportunity to try out a number of different types of jobs, but a drawback is that it can be very stressful trying to find an adequate job during a time when competition is fierce.
AU students don’t really have these concerns. Many of us are either full-time students all year round, or we work full or part time and study in our free time. If we do study all year, we may enjoy academic benefits that other student’s do not. The opportunity to take more courses as soon as the previous ones are done can allow us to finish our degrees much more quickly – or, if we work full time, we can be constantly ‘in progress’ in our off-work hours.
This is a significant benefit to the adult student, but it can also lead to a sense of monotony. Traditional students study on a strict, 2-semester-a-year system that brings a clear sense of completion as each year ends. Students of traditional schools always know what ‘year’ of the degree they are in.
An AU student, on the other hand, always has to think about that for a minute. What year are you in? Unless you are taking 10 courses a year, on a strict traditional schedule, you may find that question hard to answer. The easiest way would be to count up your courses and assume 1 year for each 10 courses completed, but for the part-time student, this might mean that you say you are in year 2 of your degree, when you have been working on it for 4 years. Phrased that way, it sounds like you are behind on your work, when in fact you may be working full time and a very productive student.
If you are feeling this way, it can be very important for you to sit down and go over all the courses you have completed. Often students who study at a steady, relentless pace fail to realize how far they have come. My husband often feels as though he’s been at AU for five or six years, and that he has accomplished little, when in fact it has been only 3.5 years and he is three courses from completing his degree. I think a lot of other AU students feel this way too.
Many younger, single students see summer break as a time to goof off. This goofing off time may be more important than we think. Underlying it is a sense of relief, and accomplishment. If your degree can be described in terms of a distinct, four-year schedule which includes 8 months of study and 4 months of rest, then each year you have the opportunity to celebrate the completion of one quarter of the task. It is human nature to want to quantify our progress and the amount of work left to go. AU students are robbed of this opportunity, but there are ways we can try to re-define our successes in our minds so that we feel realize that we are always moving forward.
The most important thing may be to discard the notion of a degree as being a ‘3 year’ or a ‘4 year’ program, and instead think in terms of the number of credits or courses that we need to take. Make up a list – or maybe a spreadsheet, as I have – that lists all of the courses you need to take, and boldly mark them off as they are completed. Celebrate a little each time you complete a course. It may not feel like much if you still have other courses open, but each completion is a positive step toward your goal and a significant accomplishment.
This way, an AU student may have more opportunities to celebrate their progress than a traditional student, who must always wait until the end of the semester. If you are studying year round, make the most of the time that you are not working on your courses. It may be that you take the weekends off, or perhaps you study on weekends, but not during the week. Either way, beware of the trap of putting off your work until you must be engaged in schoolwork 7 days a week in order to complete it. This can lead to fatigue and significant stress, as any day off from studying will be less pleasant because you will always be aware of the work that you are neglecting. Over the long term, this stress and guilt may make you feel defeated, and you may give up on your degree despite significant successes.
Labour day may not hold the same meaning for AU students as it does for others. We do not have the sense of starting fresh that can be so important for many students. Remember, though, that this is usually an illusion anyway. So many students promise each year that they will work harder, be more organized, and get better grades than they did the previous year. A new year can be a time of elation for traditional students, who can begin each year with renewed vigor and resolve.
We at AU may envy them this fresh start, but we must realize that all too often best intentions wear off quickly, and a month or two into the school year, students fall back into old habits and work more or less the same way they have in previous years. AU students, who do not experience this seasonal elation, may – by a slow and steady, relentless pace – win the academic race, though they may be unaware of their progress at the time.
Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.