If you’re an adult who’s interested in going back to school to earn your degree, the idea of homework, exams, and educational commitment might sound a bit overwhelming — and having to balance academics with your already busy work life and family life might add even more stress to the mix. After all, you might have thought your days in the classroom were behind you.
Just ask Donald W. Sweeting, the president of Colorado Christian University. In a recent interview, President Sweeting referred to himself as a late bloomer and a former daydreamer in the classroom. Now, years later, President Sweeting has “Ph.D.” behind his name, went on to be a professor, and has been the president of two academic institutions. What changed, you ask? His perspective.
If you’re struggling with wanting the accomplishment of earning your degree, while being concerned about how to actually achieve that, read on to be inspired. Learn how President Sweeting fell in love with learning, why he says it’s so important to put God first in your studies, and how to celebrate your accomplishments as an adult student.
Interview with Colorado Christian University’s president, Donald W. Sweeting:
First of all, why did you want to continue your education as an adult and earn your Ph.D.?
I never aspired to do a Ph.D. The doors just opened at the right time. When I committed my life to Christ, it was as if a light went on inside. He gave me a new drive and a new vision. He turned a switch on that gave me a hunger to learn. He opened the world to me. After all, if He is truly the Lord of all, then everything relates to him in some way. Everything matters, even things that used to bore me to tears — art, music, poetry, history, and math — began to interest me. If Jesus is the Lord, the Living Word, the Way, the Truth, the Life, then everything in some way connects with Him. All those subjects are important.
Tell us about what you studied and why you chose those programs.
I started out with Bible, because I figured if I wanted to be a Christian for the rest of my life, I better know what I believe and why. My next subject was history. I love history, because history touches on all the different areas, like music, art, and technology. After that I was on the road to becoming a pastor, and that took me to the master’s level in studies in theology. Still later, while planting a church, I worked on my Ph.D. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. A generous family came along and said that they wanted to help me pay for it. God provided in an amazing way.
Did you know what you wanted to do when you were in school?
I wasn’t interested in studying for a job to start out. I wanted to love God with all my heart and mind. I wanted to have what Romans 12 talks about: a renewed mind. I wanted to “think Christianly” about the world and my profession.
Is it important to know exactly what you want to do before you choose a program?
No, not early on. Clarity will come in time. We put too much emphasis on the degree and the program. Start by covering the core disciplines. Explore different subjects. Specialize later in your program. The heart of a liberal arts program, the guts of it, is growing and learning, discovering, intellectual curiosity, and loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
What kind of student were you?
Early on I was not a very good student. I was very distracted. If you read my early report card, my teachers said, ‘He daydreams a lot. He’s always looking out the window.’ It wasn’t until high school that things began to click. For those who are late bloomers, I relate to them. The students that it came easy to, I don’t relate to them. The students who had to work really hard, who needed a second chance, I relate to them.
What did you learn about yourself as an adult student?
I learned first of all that becoming a great student takes time. You learn to learn. You learn from your failures. Don’t give up. Figure out what went wrong. Go back and keep building. I think sometimes when we get a bad grade or get a bad comment, we give up too easily. We think it’s all over. But it’s not. Failure is a stepping stone to figuring out what went wrong and doing it again, and doing it right.
For adults who are considering going back to school, what advice would you give them?
It’s important to keep learning. Mark Twain once said, ‘Most men die at 27. We just bury them at 72.’ He meant too many people stop thinking and learning. Even for some people who went to college, the last books they read were their college books, and then their education stopped. I think that having that lifelong vision for learning is important.
Why do you think it’s so important to keep learning?
I was president of a theological seminary, and we had two kinds of students. The first group was coming out of college, going straight to graduate school. The other group was people who were in their second career — they needed to retrain for a new career. Recent studies say we’re going to have five to six jobs in our lifetime. That means we have to keep learning.
Your wife Christina is currently an adult student. Tell us about that.
Christina was trained as a biologist and a musician. After many years of pouring herself as a home educator into our four children, she wanted to go to graduate school. She’s now working on her master’s in biblical studies. At first she was fearful of going back to school. She would say things like, ‘My brain doesn’t work that way anymore. I’m too old to learn.’ I had to be her encourager and say, ‘You can do this. Lots of people do this.’ She’s now about a third of the way through her degree. She’s doing online courses and in-seat courses. She’s enjoying it. It can be done!
Earning a degree as an adult seems more stressful. Do you agree?
It’s an effort. It’s not easy, but students working on their degree at CCU face the same thing. If you talk to the average student, they’ll tell you they’re stressed, they have so many things they have to do, and they’re under pressure. I tell them that’s the way the rest of life is. This is the real world! Start to figure out how to have a proper balance in your life right now. Undergraduates have to do it — adult students just have to do it wherever they are in life.
What advice would you give to adult students to balance their work, family, and academics?
First, make sure you’re relationship with God is the most important priority in your life. Second, don’t ignore your primary relationships. If you’re married, that’s your husband, your wife, and your children. Third, watch your health. You need to take care of yourself, get good rest, and eat right so that you’re healthy enough to do all the things you need to do. Lastly you need to learn how to say ‘no.’ You will have to deny yourself and give up certain things. Getting a degree involves sacrifice.
What kind of things do you recommend students give up while in school?
I encourage you to do an audit of all the time you spend online, texting, and watching television. Add it up, and I bet you I can find seven to 10 hours in your day that are discretionary. Give up some of that now so you can pour yourself into an investment that has long-term dividends.
There are many resources for adult students, including enrollment counselors, tech apps, and books that some students find helpful. Any recommendations?
I did most of my schoolwork before apps. I had to apply myself — that’s the most basic app. The tools I used were good books, a good dictionary, and basic study tools. If you’re a pastor, you need a library of tools just like a carpenter has a good set of tools on a tool bench. You also need people around you that will encourage you and support you while you’re in school. You don’t want to do this completely alone.
What is a good way to refresh and take a break while in school?
Someone once asked Mother Theresa, ‘How do you love God?’ She replied, ‘It’s not as hard as you think. Give Him the first part of your day, the first day of the week, the first moment of any endeavor, and the first part of your income.’ To refresh, I think you have to seek the One Who is life. That’s where your relationship with God, your most basic, life-sustaining relationship, is. ‘Seek first His kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.’
How do you personally refresh?
Besides what I said before, getting out in nature, listening to music, and keeping a Sabbath refresh me. God made us to work six days a week and then to rest. If you ignore that, it comes back to haunt you. We don’t do well when we keep going, going, going. The 4th Commandment was God’s gift to humanity, to provide time out for our sake so that we might get re-centered, restored, and rejuvenated. That’s more important to me than ever. Even now, being president is a very busy, demanding job. If I don’t take that time off, I will not thrive.
How important is faith, especially as a student?
Colorado Christian University would not exist if it weren’t for Jesus Christ. Christ is the Living Word. Faith is absolutely essential to the whole enterprise of learning, and it’s vital for knowledge. If you take the Christian worldview away, you have problems. The central problem is, you’re not even sure what reality is. Why learn — why become literate? All these things go up for grabs. Why is reason important? The Christian faith and the gospel give a motivation for all these things. That’s why I keep coming back to these basics.
If someone is struggling with their faith, what would you say to them?
Engage in the great conversation of great thinkers, great books, and great ideas. It’s exhilarating. Open the Bible and read it. Open to a gospel like the Gospel of John. Pray, ‘God if You’re there, show Yourself to me through the pages of this book. Reveal Yourself to me.’ Start in your studies and say, ‘God, I want to honor You in my studies — help me.’ As you reach out to Him, and you pray those kind of prayers, He will be gracious to you.
CCU prides itself on offering adult degrees online. How does CCU’s online education stand out?
Our difference is two-fold. We provide a support structure for you as a student. That enables you to succeed. So much of online education is flawed in that there’s not a support system. Many people start degrees and they don’t finish them. That’s not true of CCU. It’s an outstanding exception. The Student Success teams are there to help you ramp up, carry on, and finish.
What would you say to an adult student who is looking at a few different colleges?
Check them all out. Look to see how they’re all different. CCU has three distinctives: First, we’ve been at online education for a while, more than most schools. Second, we have the support structure that I just mentioned which will help you succeed. Third, we strive to be a Christ-centered school. Pray and ask God for wisdom about where you should go, and He’ll direct you.
Your first commencement as CCU’s president is coming up. What would you say to the adults that are about to graduate?
It’s an exciting time. Graduation symbolizes all the work that you’ve done as a student to get to this point. It’s a time to pause and celebrate this great success. For those of us in administration, it’s a chance for us to see the ball go through the net. So much of our work, we don’t get to see the tangible outcomes. But at Commencement, when you walk across the stage and we put a diploma cover in your hand, it all comes together. We breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘That’s what we’ve been working for, and it’s worth it.’
What should these graduating students do after graduation?
The very first thing to do after you get your diploma is write a letter of thanks to everybody who ever encouraged you to get to this point. You would not be able to do what you’re doing without encouragement and supporters along the way. If you did this while your spouse was working and you were putting the extra time into your degree — it’s payback time. It’s time to bless the ones who encouraged and supported you, and let them know how critical they were to your success.
And now that they have their degree?
You’ve had the privilege of higher education. One of the temptations of academic study is pride. Because, you know a lot more than you did, it’s easy to start thinking you know more than other people and exalt yourself above others. I would encourage every graduate to think of the knowledge they’ve been given as a gift. Be a servant with your knowledge. Use it to bless others, to do good, and don’t become arrogant about it. What you have is a gift — a grace gift. The help you had to get there, the resources to pay for it, God’s sustaining grace — that’s all been a gift. Time to give back.