Doing Double

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it's friday night at 9 p.m. and jay williams is still at the office.

while his colleagues have packed up and left for weekends of socializing, sleeping in and spending time with families, williams, a pr manager at weber shandwick, is still hard at work and facing a weekend of more of the same: finishing papers and projects and studying for final exams.

that's because williams, 25, is also a part-time grad student, studying strategic communications at columbia university's school of continuing education.

juggling classes with a full-time job is a tremendous challenge, williams said. "it's always added pressure, that time crunch? it always feels like something

is failing a bit, either work or school is suffering."

it's no secret that hard economic times drive people to the classroom. enrollment at colleges across the country has been booming since the recession began.

at the city university of new york, enrollment is at its highest level in over 30 years, with nearly 80,000 degree-credit students-up 12 percent since 2002-and nearly 118,000 adult and continuing education students. (on a recent weekday afternoon, the wait time was nearly half an hour just to speak with an admissions counselor at the school.)

most of the jump, experts say, is fueled by folks who have been laid off or can't find work and have chosen to ride out the recession by going back to class.

"the conventional wisdom is that when the economy goes down, people pull out of the workforce and go back to school," said sara edwards, program director of cornell's part-time master's program for working professionals in new york.

but enrolling in a program when you're already fully employed is a different story. some professionals want to go back to learn new skills, but can't imagine packing up their corporate lives to return to school full-time, edwards explained. many are driven by financial concerns, and can't give up steady salaries to live on loans or teaching assistant pay. others are reluctant to quit jobs they already have, for fear they won't find another.

for the long island-raised williams, choosing to return to school was not an easy decision. williams graduated from cornell in 2004, but knew that having a master's degree would propel his career, and that the longer he waited the harder it would be.

"it was sort of a now or never sort of thing," he said.

but enrolling full-time would have sent williams deep into debt. he also worried about losing touch with the industry if he left for two or three years to go back to school. so instead, he enrolled at columbia in a program designed specifically for working professionals like him.

nearly every school in the city offers part-time programs designed for working students, with classes taught on weekends, at night and online. these range from part-time master's degrees and bachelor's degrees to certificate programs in nearly every topic imaginable for people both returning to school and attending for the first time.

cornell's edwards said students should look for programs that are accustomed to dealing with students who are employed full-time.

"i think the trick is to find a program that accommodates the schedules and realities and demands of working people but doesn't compromise on the quality," she said.

but balancing work and school will always be a difficult act.

most days, jay williams arrives at the office around 9 a.m. and spends eight hours doing pharmaceutical public relations. then he rushes uptown for three hours of class. weekends are spent catching up at the office or tucked away at the library, reading and working on school projects. he may steal a few hours to run errands or hit the gym, but there's really no time for much else.

"that's what sucks," williams said. "the last few weeks have been miserable. it's an endless amount of work. all you see is darkness. there's not a lot of time for fun."

those who've been through it say that having a flexible employer is key to managing what's bound to be a balancing act.

roman matatov, 27, recognized that getting an education would be crucial to landing the job he wanted, but couldn't afford to leave work for school.

"i needed to earn and i needed to learn," joked the moscow-born matatov, who completed a bachelors of business administration in finance and investments and a master's in accountancy from baruch college in 2004 while working full-time. he currently lives in brooklyn.

like williams, matatov endured

years of waking up before dawn and working late into the night to keep the balls afloat.

but what made it easier, he said, was working for a company full of young mbas who appreciated his investments, and understood and made allowances for his unique constraints.

students and educators also agree that there can be a lot to gain from going to school and working at the same time. these working students are able to apply what they learn inside the classroom directly to their jobs and can test concepts and strategies immediately in the real world.

matatov, who now works as a forensic accountant with marcum, llp, said that without that combination of class and work experience, he never would have landed the position he has now.

"it was critical, essential," said matatov, who is now coincidently back at baruch, teaching principles of forensic accounting as an adjunct professor-while continuing to work full-time.

looking back at his experience, williams said he, too, is glad he went back to school and eager to graduate

this december.

but he warned anyone considering embarking on a degree program while working full-time to think long and hard about what they may be giving up to have it all.

with so much on his plate, williams said he's drifted from once-close family and friends. he's missed countless happy hours, birthdays and weddings, working late at the office or rushing to class.

"it's a sacrifice," williams said. "that's the worst part of it, the social stuff. that's the stuff that kills you."

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