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Back to school looks different at various stages in life: parents and young children coping with first day jitters in early education, high school students preparing for their impending college experience, young men and women moving away from home to begin their higher education experience and non-traditional students making a fresh start with a new career path. While each group experiences a certain level of stress and anxiety during the fall of each year, an equal amount of excitement and joy surrounds this time of new beginnings.

Coping with first-day anxiety

Leading up to the first day of kindergarten parents experience a wide array of emotions. Moms and Dads alike relish this important part of the growing process for their young children but also worry about separation anxiety on the part of both the child and the parent. A strange, larger building with more students and a more structured curriculum can be a monumental change for our youngest student population and most families take some time acclimating to the new schedule and stressors.

Amanda Pangrazio, of Makanda, has sent both of her children to their first day of kindergarten and knows very well the benefits of attending events ahead of the start of the school year as well as preparing for the rush of the new morning routine.

At Unity Point School, the Ready Freddy program, in particular, helped Pangrazio and her husband make a smooth transition into kindergarten parenthood while also allowing her sons to tour their classrooms and meet with their new teachers. During the four Ready Freddy sessions, held in the spring before the start of the upcoming school year, the program allowed Pangrazio to meet with administrators, ask questions and confer with other parents. Pangrazio’s children were able to learn about what would be expected of them each day and bond with future classmates.

“It was a wonderful experience that made that first morning of kindergarten so much easier, although admittedly I did still cry when the bus pulled away,” shared Pangrazio.

While programs like Ready Freddy help alleviate the fear of sending little ones off into the world of grade school, the daily routine is a new challenge as well. Getting up early each day, dressing for school, eating a healthy breakfast and having a restful evening after the school day is overwhelming to parents and children alike.

Pangrazio says that keeping summer bedtimes relatively the same as school year bedtimes helps with the transition, while implementing time-saving strategies allows for calmer mornings during the first weeks of the school year.

“Two to three weeks before school starts we get back into the habit of picking and laying out our clothes for the next day. It’s an extra step at bedtime, but it saves us so much chaos in the morning,” said Pangrazio.

Preparing for tired and hungry children by stocking the pantry with after-school snacks is another good practice during back to school time while avoiding busy evenings the first few weeks of school is essential in creating a relaxed and restful atmosphere for youngsters. The first day of school for kindergarteners is an exciting time, with backpacks full of new school supplies and new friends to interact with. A few weeks of planning and preparing on the part of parents and educators make for a smooth transition into this first year of school.

Prepping for college

The years between kindergarten and high school seem to fly by for most of us and it is easy to forget the arduous process of preparing for college as a teenager. During their second year in high school, most teens are already beginning the search for colleges and universities while also thinking about areas of interest for their future careers.

Brandi Doerflin, of Marion, has been assisting her son with the college application process and has learned a few tricks to make the task more manageable for both parents and students. According to Doerflin, at the end of her son’s sophomore year, he created an account and profile on College Board, an organization that was created to expand access to higher education. On the site, SAT and ACT scores are reported and students can create detailed profiles for colleges to view.

“At the end of his sophomore year, my son also started looking at college websites that he was interested in, which gave a lot of information pertaining to courses, admissions, requirements, and campus life in general,” said Doerflin.

The following year is perhaps even busier with SAT and ACT preparation and testing taking place during the junior year of high school. Add to that multiple college visits and open applications for scholarships becoming available and it is no wonder the process is so time-consuming. Doerflin discovered ways to fit in more college visits without her son having to miss school days by making trips to campuses on days that school was not in session.

“We went to the Blue and Gold Day at Vanderbilt on a school holiday. It was a very informative half day and included a campus tour,” shared Doerflin.

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Doerflin said that having a spreadsheet with all extra-curricular activities listed, to use as a personal profile of achievements, is also helpful as most universities want to see proof of a well-rounded applicant. Adding accomplishments to the document as they occur is easier than trying to remember each activity at a later date. Overall, it is important to start early and be vigilant about deadlines, reminders and time-sensitive opportunities. With some help from parents and guidance counselors, the road to college is manageable and rewarding for the entire family.

The beginning of the rest of your life

While the excitement of beginning college is a bright time in a young adult’s life, there is also a time of transition for freshmen, leaving home and gaining independence while managing the many intellectual, social and emotional challenges at the start of the academic year.

At Southern Illinois University there are several programs in place, in the New Students Programs department, to help students integrate into the college lifestyle. For instance, the Saluki Startup, which is held in the second week of August, helps bring students together at the start of the fall semester. With a variety of activities taking place over three days, incoming freshmen are given the tools to become successful and make connections with students, instructors and the surrounding community.

Another popular event for the incoming freshmen class at SIU is the Weeks of Welcome, commonly known as WOW. For six weeks, from late August to the end of September, students are invited to an array of events and programs that offer information on life at SIU as well as provide social events to bring the campus community together.

Programs such as these are vital for students beginning their first year of college at any learning institution. With loneliness, homesickness, financial issues, peer pressure and overall stress, navigating the first year at a university takes dedication on the part of students and faculty alike.

Continuing education

Somewhat more daunting than beginning college at eighteen, non-traditional students often face challenges unknown to younger classmates. Whether it be a career change or simply a later start in higher education, non-traditional students are a large part of many college campuses. This classification can mean that a student’s entry into college was delayed by one or more years, that the student is employed full-time, is financially independent or has dependents.

For Amanda Fager, of Carbondale, the road to furthering her education took many unexpected turns. The military spouse and mother of four decided that she had gone long enough in life without pursuing her goals and that fear was no longer going to be a factor in her decision making.

After a divorce in her early twenties, Fager took a position working with developmentally disabled persons. While the requirements of the job were nerve-wracking and challenging, she ultimately succeeded and decided that she would one day become a nurse. Following the birth of her fourth child, Fager started by enrolling herself in an Anatomy and Physiology course.

“Looking back, I think I may have been testing myself to see if I was ready, capable and intelligent enough to handle the type of learning required to become a nurse,” said Fager.

And capable she was. Even with several health setbacks, including thyroid issues, left ventricular heart failure and a mini-stroke, Fager successfully completed the LPN program at John A. Logan College in May of 2019 and will begin the RN program in August of 2019.

The path has not been without some struggles, but luckily Fager has overwhelming support from her family which has been crucial to her success.

“My husband is very supportive of my efforts. My mother-in-law has become our nanny, confidante, chauffeur and scheduler. Juggling schedules was a chore at times,” shared Fager.

Fager, like many other non-traditional students, knows that she is responsible for her own success and that many roadblocks are only temporary. For persons wishing to further their education or improve their career path, the prospect of starting back to school as a non-traditional student does not have to be an impossible or frightening venture.

From kindergarten to college, the back to school time of year holds immense amounts of hope at every stage of life. Whether it be parents sending their little ones off into the world for the first time, teenagers focusing on a bright future, or thirty-somethings working towards a degree while juggling a household, back to school is a bright spot of positivity in today’s world.

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