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A nip in the air, snow on the peak and the rumble of school buses can only mean one thing: it’s back-to-school time! For kids and teens, returning to classes after the summer break sparks uncertainty and excitement. What classes will I take? What will I learn? Who else will be there learning alongside me?

From kindergarten through college, my coursework was mostly decided for me. I followed a plan of study designed to get me to the next level of learning or prepare me for a career. That meant taking some courses I wasn’t particularly fond of — that C++ programming class comes to mind — but I powered through and finished college. I’ve toyed with the idea of going back for a Ph.D., but I don’t have the time or, frankly, the motivation for full-time college right now. That doesn’t mean I have to forfeit the joy of going back to school, and neither do you.

In fact, taking classes when you’re not chasing a degree can be extremely rewarding, benefit your career and be a heck of a lot of fun. Online and onsite studies that don’t require a four-year or longer commitment, or that can be completed at a more relaxed pace, are plentiful and more affordable than you might think. Since I began researching the possibilities, the toughest part has been narrowing down my choices to two classes, which is all I have time for right now.

Locally, Pikes Peak Community College offers certificate programs that can be completed in as little as one semester and degree programs that can be taken online. UCCS has online and weekend degree programs, perfect for working adults, plus online and onsite certificate programs. Colorado College accepts non-degree-seeking students on a space-available basis, and schools like Colorado State University Global Campus offer online degrees and certificates. There are many more colleges in the Springs and the state, and if you cast your net wider you’ll find even more schools and courses of study to suit your interests and needs. Even Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale offer online certificate programs via their extension campuses, and you don’t have to go through the typical admissions process. (Believe it or not, I earned a certificate in bartending from Harvard University decades ago by attending night school on their campus while I was a full-time student at a nearby Boston college.)

So, why go back to school if you don’t have to? From a career point of view, gaining new skills is practically a job requirement these days. Technology changes. Applications change. Business challenges and customer needs change. Companies get disrupted and the skills that made you invaluable one day are obsolete the next. Like my son reminded me the other day, saying “But that’s how we’ve always done it” at work is a death knell. On-the-job training is great, but employers aren’t likely to offer courses that will allow you to switch careers or advance considerably in your present role. For that, you have to go outside the workplace, and juggling full-time work plus full-time college is not fun. That’s where certificate programs, or degree programs that allow you to take one course per semester, can get you up to speed quickly without draining your schedule or your bank account.

Going back to school is easier if you’re already a knowledge junkie, but even if you never liked school, you can find a class that caters to your interests. “The choices are endless” is so cliché, but in this age of education everywhere, they practically are. If you feel like you’re stagnant or getting left behind at work, there’s a course that can get you back up to speed and ahead of the game.

Another reason to go back to school is for all the good things the learning process does for your brain. In my work as a ghostwriter, I interview a lot of people — physicians and lawyers; business, technology, and finance leaders and entrepreneurs; and coaches — who specialize in health, wealth and happiness. While they don’t always agree on the best diet, fitness or financial plan or mindfulness routine, all of them recommend continuous learning for career and life wellness and longevity.

After perusing all the choices, I decided to enroll in two classes: one for fun and one for work. Bemis School of Art has some wonderful courses beginning this month, and I can spare one evening a week — when my hands, eyes and brain are fried from working on the computer — to express myself in color while exploring a new talent. For the work side, I enrolled in an online copyediting certificate program at U.C. San Diego.

With all the choices out there, you can become an expert at anything you set your mind to. All you have to do is figure out what that is and find the class that’s right for you.

That nip in the morning air isn’t going to warm up anytime soon and the snow on the peak is only going to get deeper. The school buses are going to keep coming and going, carting the kids off to their lessons. In the next year, you could become the office expert on the latest technology or management skill, develop a hidden talent, or even have a new career. So, what do you want to learn today?

Susan Joy Paul is an author, editor and freelance writer. She has lived on Colorado Springs’ northwest side for more than 20 years. Contact Susan with comments and suggestions at woodmennotes@pikespeaknewspapers.com.

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