Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 21, 2021

Juggling fatherhood, my career and graduate school

By JASON HELFER | February 27, 2020

COURTESY OF JASON HELFER Helfer’s experience as a non-traditional student presents unique challenges.

My days begin early. At 5:15 a.m. my alarm wakes me. This is the only way I can spend a few precious minutes with my wife in the morning before she begins work at her preschool. Our routine is the 45 minutes of coffee and news we have together before the marathon of each day begins.

By 6:45 a.m., there are four boys to wake up and get ready for school. My mornings consist of preparing lunches and listening to them talk about video games and cartoons they watch. 

At 9:00 a.m. I’m walking into my office where I work as a U.S. Army recruiter. All day long there are phone calls to students and parents. During lunchtime on any given day, I am at a small table in a high school cafeteria explaining the Army to high school juniors, seniors, teachers and school administrators. My current role in the Army is recruiting in a hardscrabble part of northeastern Pennsylvania called Hazleton.

Eventually, around 6 or 6:30 p.m. I am pulling our minivan into our driveway in suburban Pennsylvania. That is when my Hopkins life begins. I am a graduate student studying communications through Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs. 

So far the work has been manageable. I am enjoying working with students, albeit online, that take pride in their work and who are intellectually curious. In addition to my work and graduate work, I decided to get involved with The News-Letter. College journalism is important. All journalism is important but college newspapers tell stories that are often overlooked by the large daily papers. 

Every student at Hopkins has a story. This university is filled with talented men and women from all walks of life. Young and old, gay and straight, different ethnicities and nationalities. I feel honored to be studying among them.

I must say though, studying at 41 years of age has me a bit nervous. The current generation of most college students is far more sophisticated than my generation at their age. Students today are tech savvy to say the least. They have often traveled and are open to listening to opposing viewpoints. Today’s students seem introspective and sharp. I’m 41 years old, a dad, a soldier and a student. The pressure to succeed is enormous. 

What I am learning at Hopkins is directly applicable to the second career that I am about to begin. My next career will be in communications, either in the field of journalism or public relations. I enjoy writing and listening to others about their unique stories. I cannot envision myself pursuing something else at the moment.

I’ve had some big moments in my life that filled me with pride. As an 18-year-old, I graduated boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif. Years later, I deployed to Afghanistan as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army. When I returned to my home base in Illesheim, Germany I was proud of my service. 

At 37 years of age, I finally achieved my dream of graduating from college. I had been in the military for a lengthy career by this point. College was a long slog. As a working parent, I spent a lot of weekends writing reports when I would have preferred to be with my kids. 

I think the wait, the struggle and the journey made me appreciate my bachelor’s degree that much more. It was an odd experience seeing my 14-year-old daughter in the crowd at my graduation, rather than my parents. 

My personal life has had its ups and downs as well. What 41-year-old’s life hasn’t? I’ve been lucky enough to witness the birth of two of my kids. I was overwhelmed with joy when my wife and I adopted three more children in a Maui courtroom four years ago. Nothing has had as much of an impact on my life as becoming a dad.

Now that I am married and have kids, I often am more impressed with my family’s successes than with my own. My daughter, now 17, recently was accepted to a college in Philadelphia. I am thrilled when I watch one of my sons defend a goal in soccer and another son leap through the air at his horse riding lesson. I’ve had my share of tragedy and disappointments. Neither of my parents are alive anymore and therefore aren’t able to witness my children’s achievements, big and small. 

Few things could have prepared for the next chapter in my life. At 40 years of age, right before Christmas, I received an email that has changed my life.

I opened my acceptance letter for Hopkins. I am earning my Master’s in Communication through the School of Advanced Academic Programs. It was an odd experience. I opened the email in my car at a Walmart parking lot. The only person in the car was my father-in-law from Germany. It was hard to explain why I was so excited about my email, but with the help of Google Translate, I was able to share my experience with him and then later with my family at home.

Attending your dream school online is a mixed blessing. I love that I have the convenience of being able to study despite the demands of work and home. Sometimes however, I wish that I were immersed in campus life. I would like to see what day to day life at Hopkins is all about.

Finally last weekend, my family and I visited the Homewood Campus where my communications program is based out of. We visited Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, explored Hopkins and ate at a number of Baltimore’s great restaurants. You can lose sight of your dreams when you are working and studying online. I would suggest taking a weekend trip to Baltimore if you're in the same situation as me and have the opportunity. 

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