Renea Smith, senior director of enrollment at Northeastern University, shares her inspiring story of returning to college at 32 to become the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
At 32-years old, Renea Smith’s plate was not just full, it was overflowing. As the mother of two young children, full-time enrollment director at Northeastern University, and choir director at her church, Smith was a leader in many areas of her life—but she couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. That something, she says, was the college degree she had set out to earn years prior.
At age 23, Smith began her studies in Organizational Communication at Lesley University but—as many students can relate—life ended up getting in the way. She started working, had children, and before she knew it, the years started to pass by.
Flashing forward to 2008, Smith felt the time was right to return to school to finish her bachelor’s degree, and so she enrolled in Northeastern University’s BA in Organizational Communication program (now the Digital Communication Program).
Why Finish a Bachelor’s Degree?
For Smith, earning her degree wasn’t necessarily about career advancement or a salary bump. Rather, she says, it was a lingering item on her lengthening “personal bucket list.”
“Deep down, I knew I could do it,” she says. “I owed it to myself to at least try.”
With 24 credits from her prior work at Lesley, she started slowly—one class at a time—working toward her associate degree first. Then, she ramped up to two classes a semester and enrolled in Northeastern’s Fast Track Bachelor’s program, comprised of both online and on-ground classes which enabled her to juggle her many commitments.
Though she had determination and a plan in place, a glimmer of doubt remained.
Hesitations, Fears, and Doubts about Going Back to School
Smith says she had very real fears about returning to school as an adult. Would she be able to finish this time around? Would she fail her classes? What if she wasn’t smart enough?
“In my era,” she says, “there wasn’t an emphasis on kids doing well in college. No one was telling me how important my grades were going to be. We did just enough to pass by. When I started out on my degree, I was embarrassed to admit to my previous grades, and I worried about not being able to keep up.”
Another concern for Smith was how would she manage to balance her many responsibilities without burning out. Primarily, she says, she worried about not being able to give her two children, then ages six and 13, the time they deserved. She decided to confront this challenge head-on by sitting down her children and being honest and open about how her educational journey might impact them.
“I sat down with my children and said, ‘Mommy is going back to school to earn her degree. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Mommy might seem distant at times, but she is just busy trying to focus on her studies.’”
When asked how her fears played out, Smith says they were all bigger in her mind than in reality.
“I was able to do it…the kids were so understanding. Children are so understanding. I felt it was painful, but the kids—they just saw willpower and saw strength.”
The Challenges of Being an Adult Student
Smith warns, “Make no mistake—the program was HARD!” While she started her course on-ground, her last 18 months of classes were held entirely online, which she says challenged her, even as a very independent learner.
“I had to learn to commit to the class wholly in order to keep up with the work and meet deadlines. There were moments pure exhaustion and instances of forgotten assignments, but over time I found strategies that worked for me.”
At times, Smith was taking four (yes, four!) classes at a time while balancing her other responsibilities to her family, work, and church. Time management skills and remembering why she wanted to earn her degree helped her persevere.
“I’ll be honest—there was no time for Renea,” she says. “I do remember a sense of weariness—times where I wanted to quit and thought, ‘How am I ever going to be able to complete this workload?’ It was very intense, by the grace of God I got through.”
Lessons Learned—Reflecting on her Keys to Success
Smith says that beyond academic work, she learned many lessons and insights about herself during her years in school.
“In 2013 I graduated with a 3.1GPA—the best I had ever done in my life! I learned a lot about myself and what I can accomplish. I was also no longer ashamed of my previous path. The gaps in schooling allowed me to grow up. Having more life experience—like working in the real world and raising two children—readied me to learn. I was more ready than I possibly could’ve been at a younger age. I thank God for things that came in between and ultimately made me a better student.”
Smith counts her blessings, remarking that she had many pillars of support throughout her journey. She also recounts some strategies that worked for her during her studies:
“Leaning on my faith. Church every Sunday and bible study. A loving pastor who counseled me in tough times. He was an ear to listen and shoulder to lean on. Thinking toward the future and not being distracted on the little things in the now. Looking ahead to the end goal, not to the ten pages due tomorrow.”
Advice to Prospective Students
Smith has two main pieces of advice for those considering going back to school as an adult.
“One, you can do anything you set your mind to; you can do it. Shoot for the stars. I know these are things that others have said, but nothing’s impossible if you put your mind to it. Secondly, it goes by so fast! Focus on your end goal, and never look at time as an obstacle. Look at the time your education will take as a positive—that you have the time to do it. The years will fly by regardless, so the greatest gift you can give yourself is to at least put it toward something worthwhile that you are passionate about.”
A Mother, a College Graduate, an Inspiration
In hindsight, going back to school wasn’t only a gift to herself, but to her whole family. In fact, she was the first in her family to earn a college degree. And, although she was initially worried about the effect going back to school would have on her children, her accomplishment had only positive impacts on their lives.
“If I didn’t do what I did in going back to school, I wonder what they would’ve done without that example.”
Her son, now 17, began working at age 14, demonstrating a tremendous work ethic which he brings to his two jobs today. He now wants to be a business major and attend Duke University. Her daughter Briana, a 2019 graduate of Northeastern’s Criminal Justice program, had some periods of struggle during her undergraduate studies but, thanks to her mother, knows that anything is possible with hard work. She saw her mom struggle but also saw her finish, and was all smiles on her graduation day. For Renea Smith, who paved the way, there is no better gift.
Editor’s note: Northeastern’s Fast Track program is now known as the Bachelor’s Completion program, where students can learn at their own pace and finish in as little as 20 months to two years.