Emma: My idea of balance and how part-time study makes it work

USQ student blogger, Emma Dunlop
Emma is studying a Bachelor of Human Services majoring in child and family and counselling. She has four children with complex health needs and adjusts her study load to suit the changing needs of her family and her volunteer community work, including support and representation of The Project ECHO, ADHD series. When there is a moment of spare time, Emma likes to pretend she’s Jamie Oliver in the kitchen while listening, and singing along to all sorts of music.

Balancing family, work and study is hard work. My definition of balance involves peace and harmony. Imagine a clean (not necessarily tidy) house, dinner on the table on time with the family all together, having a happy and lively discussion. Yeah, it’s all in my dreams. It is taking a lot of effort to come to terms with not being able to study full-time, raise a happy family and have a rewarding career to the level I wish I could at the same time.

Despite what I thought when I left school years ago, study does not take priority over family and having food on the table. My family commitments have become complex over the past few years, so my work and study commitments have become complex too. Work and study have had to change to suit my family’s needs and I think I have tried just about every combination of study load there is. Studying two subjects, dropping back to one when the kids were unwell, studying over summer, ramping up to four subjects when the kids were getting back on track and my husband was off work, then back to three and, finally, taking a break over the summer to recover.

Life isn’t concrete; mine is always changing, so I need to do what works best for me and my family at the time.

I really don’t think it’s possible for me to find my ideal version of balance while studying, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t found a version of balance, thanks to part-time study. Life isn’t concrete; mine is always changing, so I need to do what works best for me and my family at the time. I describe my life as a ‘spinning plates performance’, the circus act where the performer goes from one plate to another spinning them and as one plate loses momentum, the performer switches their focus to give it another spin to get it going again.

Source: GIPHY

That’s my life studying part-time, and it works okay. I am the performer and over the years, I’ve needed to figure out how many plates I can handle without having one stop spinning, crash and break. Some of these plates have been my relationships with my husband and children, friendships, community and church commitments, work, keeping the household functioning and the biggest, heaviest plate most recently has been the diagnosis and understanding of our children’s disabilities.

I’m not always standing in front of all the plates giving them my full attention, especially studying one or two courses, but I give each plate enough so they can keep going while I spin others and get them back up to speed.

Asking myself ‘which plate is most important right now’ has required critical self-reflection and at times has been quite confronting.

I’ve metaphorically dropped a few plates over the years.

I’ve metaphorically dropped a few plates over the years that I had thought were fine china, but as time has gone on, I’ve discovered that what I thought was fine china was actually an imitation and my spinning plate performance (my life) is pretty great without them. A vivid example of this was shutting our family business. We spent so much time standing in front of that ’fine china’ plate that other plates, namely our kids, were losing momentum and close to falling most of the time. Finally, the ‘kids’ plate fell. We caught them as they fell, but in doing so, saw the family business plate fall and smash entirely. At the time, both my husband and I were devastated that we’d lost our business, but even more devastated that we’d almost lost focus on our kids. Fast-forward 12 months, we can look back now and see that the business plate was imitation china, and it has been replaced by smaller, more manageable plates that produce better outcomes.

Another great discovery has been that some plates almost spin on their own and other performers can help or even take over the maintenance of them. We’ve got helpers to get the momentum stable for our kids and help with employment and study, just to name a few.

The beauty of studying at USQ has been the flexibility to change the amount of attention I need to give the plate to keep it moving.

Studying at university is another spinning plate. The beauty of studying at USQ has been the flexibility to change the amount of attention I need to give the plate to keep it moving and eventually achieve my goal of graduating. Rest assured, the flexibility of being able to reduce the size of your uni plate and study part-time is there, you just need to figure out how important it is at the time and how much time you can spend spinning it.


If you’re considering reducing the size of your university plate by studying part-time, get in touch with our student support team and speak to them about an enrolment pattern that works for you.



Veronica: The power of work-life-study integration

How to achieve work/study/family/life flexibility

Maria: Slow and steady wins the race