The "Superwoman" model has been discounted time and again, but many working parents who return to school still believe they can do it all.

That's a recipe for disaster, according to Joan Robertson, director of the Weekend College at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. The Weekend College has 900 students, many of whom are pursuing degrees in healthcare. Most are working women with children; many are single mothers. With an average age of 35, some are also caring for aging parents.

"The greatest majority of women come back to college thinking, `I can do this; I don't need anybody else. All I have to do is attend my classes, go home, study and take my tests.' What they learn is they won't be successful that way," Robertson said. "They very quickly learn that it's very hard to do it 'all by myself' and have no impact on anybody else."

The balancing act

Students must manage work, family and social commitments, and attend to their health and spiritual needs. "It sounds like a big order, but in truth, life is often easier and the journey is more fun when you don't leave any of those out," Robertson said.

She advises prospective students to thoroughly investigate their options:

Ask about the format. When will required classes be held? Day classes may interfere with work, and evening or weekend classes may interfere with children's homework and extracurricular activities. Think about how to adjust your schedule to fit the format that's best for you.

Determine whether the design of the program allows students to take a leave of absence and return easily into the sequence of coursework.

Investigate the school's resources and hours. How late are the libraries and computer centers open, and do they have support staff when I need it? Are their resources such as emergency child care for single parents?

Ask your employer what accommodations could be made to support your return to college.

Tap into scholarship programs and other supports offered by employers, such as professional libraries and computer labs.

Enlist support

Many Weekend College students support each other, and Robertson encourages enlisting family members as well. "Children by and large are very proud to see their parent go back to school, and if they're brought into the discussion, they're a great support system," she said.

To keep it all in balance, students must also take care of themselves. "Most adult women put themselves last and if they put themselves last, they'll burn out," Robertson said. "All the balancing has to include `What about me?' and not to feel selfish about that."

Nancy Crotti is a freelance writer who lives in St. Paul.