Returning to College; or, The Hero’s Journey (Act 3)

Hero's Journey: Return
What’s the ultimate destination of the hero’s journey for an adult learner? Graduation . . . and nothing less than personal transformation.

The Hero’s Journey, Act I: Departure is here

The Hero’s Journey, Act II: Initiation is here.

Our hero’s journey so far: After accepting your quest to re-enroll in college and overcoming obstacles, you’ve reached major milestones and earned personal rewards on your path to your college degree.


Act 3: Return


The road back (or forward)

After earning their big reward, it’s natural for the hero to want to rest on their laurels. They may want to return home to their ordinary world. Or they may balk at returning home to their ordinary world now that they’ve discovered adventure. Whichever the case, their quest is not yet done (dun dun duuuunnnn!).

Odysseus finally arrives back in Ithaca—only to find his palace overrun by his long-suffering wife’s suitors. After a period of rest, Frodo et al. leave lovely Lothlórien to continue their journey with the mood doom ring. Lilo and Stitch return to Hawaii after Stitch rescues his kidnapped BFF from Captain Gantu’s spaceship. 

After completing midterms or finals or giving a major presentation, you might be exhausted and require a bit of recovery. That’s OK! Giving yourself time to celebrate your recent efforts and recuperate is a great strategy for avoiding burnout. But R&R can easily become a series of skipped classes after a big paper or exam. Or you might start contemplating not returning to college at all after a particularly grueling semester.

Hero, stay strong! Reward yourself for overcoming your obstacles, but continue your quest. Or if family obligations, financial barriers, or mental health demand that you take another break from college, set specific goals for when you’ll resume your education journey. You are almost there!


Danger: Enemies AfootThe resurrection

We have arrived at the ultimate climax of our journey! It’s our hero’s final test. They must muster all that they’ve learned to overcome their greatest enemy, the big boss. After great struggle, our hero emerges triumphant. They may even perish, only to be reborn a changed person.

And so ghostly Obi-Wan says to Skywalker, “Use the Force, Luke,” and the young Jedi promptly destroys the Death Star with his eyes closed. Katniss and Peeta begin to eat poisonous berries, forcing the Gamemakers to declare them both winners. Beowulf dies after his final battle with a hot-mouthed dragon.

In your journey, this might be a capstone project, senior thesis, or final exhibition that you have to complete as part of your degree requirements. Or it might be a final semester of coursework before you are eligible to graduate. It’s a tremendous hurdle! And yeah, you might even feel like you’re dying a little bit during these big final moments.

But as you come back to life, you will have your hard-won degree in hand! You’ll also have garnered the pride and confidence in knowing that you’ve fulfilled your potential and accomplished a major goal despite significant challenges. And you’ll have gained a broader range of opportunities ahead of you.


The return with the elixir

Transformed by their journey, our hero returns home, bringing what they’ve learned back to the ordinary world. They may apply their new knowledge to improve that world. They may teach others. Or they may even heed the call to another adventure. 

Understandably, Harry doesn’t want to return to the dismal Dursleys, but he takes solace in knowing he is now a tried and true wizard. Dorothy and Toto land back in Kansas, happy to reunite with her unwitting family. Lilo and Stitch teach the meaning of ‘ohana to others and become the anchors of a found family. Beowulf leaves behind a legacy of greatness for his people.

Triumph: Graduation

Once you’ve completed your college degree, hero, what will you have learned about yourself and what you can accomplish? How will you have changed? You might think about what you can do now that you couldn’t do before. Moreover, the future lies before you. And because learning is lifelong, you might consider whether you’re ready for yet more adventure. Should you pursue a certificate, a graduate degree, an apprenticeship, or some other credential? Or do you want to learn more in your own way and in your own time?

Whichever path you choose, you’ll have the knowledge, skills, and insights to move forward with confidence. You’ll have proven that you can overcome tremendous challenges and finish the quest you started. And as the hero of your own journey, you’ll be able to rewrite your success story—and author its many sequels—in the days and years to come.


The end . . . or rather, the beginning

I hope that learning a little about the hero’s journey helps you feel less alone as a working adult returning to college. Your challenges, need for support, and achievements are such an indelible part of the human experience that it’s become a story we recognize in our entertainment and in our own lives. You can do this!


Your story is not over

If you think the book of your education is closed, think again! It’s understandable to feel anxious about returning to school after you’ve taken a break—especially if it’s been a long while since you stepped foot inside a classroom or attended an online seminar. Our ReUp Success Coaches are here to serve as empathetic guides and personal advocates on your journey back to school. Ready to finish the quest you started?