Back-to-school kit for 51-year old single mom
June 21, 2013 8:12 AM   Subscribe

My mom, who hasn't been in "school" since 1980, is going back for an associate's degree. I'm super proud of her, and I think she needs some extra support. What can I put in an awesome "back to school" package for her?

More details:

- I live away from home so I don't know what she already has in terms of pens, notebooks, etc. I know that she recently got an actual desk from Goodwill to do her studying.

- She is a single mom to a teenage boy, and has a whole house/yard to take care of, so she has a lot of household responsibilities and I think she's always a little overwhelmed by all the stuff she has to do

- She told me last night that I'm the only one that's been encouraging about her going back to school - other family members have kind of said "oh, that's nice" and left it at that. So I want to get her some cool stuff.

I know nice pens, folders, etc. are nice things to get, but any more unique suggestions? Anything that makes your study desk especially nice? Anything you'd love to have had as you tried to get back into the schoolwork mindset after many years?
posted by nakedmolerats to Shopping (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Printer Ink. It isn't glamorous but when you run out of ink at 11:30pm and your paper/project is due the next morning you throw all kinds of blessings out at the person who bought you printer ink. Plus it is kind of expensive for people on a tight budget.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:15 AM on June 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

If she doesn't have one already, a nice planner she can use to write down her assignments.

This isn't as directly useful, but if you can you should definitely try to buy t-shirt representing the school she'll be attending and gift it to her! School pride is always a good thing. :)
posted by lucy.jakobs at 8:16 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nice office supplies are the best.

A California company called Palomino recently started making a couple new versions of a pencil called the Blackwing (you can Google if you want the history), but needless to say, these are the best pencils. I prefer the 602 for writing purposes, but the Pearl is probably the nicest looking. Get a good sharpener to go with it.

Also, a gift card to the campus coffee shop sure can't hurt.
posted by Apropos of Something at 8:17 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

digital voice recorder

it is on the expensive end of supplies but she might be so overwhelmed that being able to re-listen to lectures will be a dream.

you're very sweet to do this for her.
posted by maya at 8:19 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Metal white board; crack it open and pre write a list of chores on it or days / chores - assign most of them to anyone but her; concrete out studying days in there for her so they get it - they have to help out more to give her school time she needs.

A commuter cup if she doesn't have one, and a nice water bottle (with loop and ring for attaching to bags).
posted by tilde at 8:19 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, also a good book bag if she doesn't have one already.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 8:20 AM on June 21, 2013

I read this wrong - initially, my first thought was "what would she have had as a student in 1980 that would be fun now?" So, I immediately thought of a Trapper Keeper. Perhaps a little mirror to hang in her locker, and some KB pencils?

On a more serious note, a nice bag for carrying books (not necessarily a backpack, any strong bag will do). Does the campus bookstore have gift certificates?
posted by Elly Vortex at 8:24 AM on June 21, 2013

Get someone to do her lawn for the summer.

Grab her an iPad mini.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:26 AM on June 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

Backpack with rollers and an extending handle seemed to be what all the non-trads used when I was in college.
posted by kenaldo at 8:36 AM on June 21, 2013

I think it's lovely that you're thinking of your mom this way and being so supportive.

For me, when I am super busy with work other responsibilities, eating good, fresh, homecooked food goes out the window in favor of easy/quick/cheap.

So while your criteria seem to lean towards school supplies, I would either stock her freezer with homecooked food, or get someone to do it (surely you can find someone on CL to help her out). You will be taking two chores off her list (shopping and cooking), thereby giving her more time to study. And reducing the likelihood of her putting on the freshman 15 ; )
posted by vignettist at 8:39 AM on June 21, 2013

Advice for your mom from another mom who didn't go to college until older (me!):

-go to all of your classes and pay attention

-do all of the assigned reading and homework

-if you don't understand something keep asking questions until you do

-don't worry about anyone thinking you're stupid if you ask questions, chances are excellent that others don't understand either

-make friends among your classmates, study together, support each other

-be sure to get enough sleep

-make sure your kid does his share of the housework and yardwork, do some of it together. He needs to learn how to cook and clean, it's just part of growing up. (I have three sons, they all cook and clean, their partners all love it!)
posted by mareli at 8:43 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Good for your mom! What will her first courses be?

It's wonderful that your being so supportive!

Along with pens, pencils, paper (notebook and printer), printer ink, a good school planner, a school bag, etc., you might want to compile a short list of online resources that make studying easier. You can just tuck it in with everything else and she can use the resources or not as she sees fit.

When at all possible, get used books. They are available on:
Amazon (checked used options)

If she needs to review any math, may be helpful. is a nice online graphing calculator if she's getting into any of that.

There are a lot of free online flashcard sites (and apps) if they would help.

Once you know the classes she'll be taking her first semester, you could compile a list of sites that might be helpful for each course.

Good luck to your mom!
posted by wiskunde at 8:43 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Vignetti has it right: stuff to make the rest of her life easier, more convenient. I'm 53, and I just returned to school after more than 25 years to finish my bachelors. I'm loving it, but it's tiring, especially 'cause I also have teens at home to take care of.

A flash drive/thumb drive would be great; for more than one class I had Powerpoint presentions that I needed to make in class. Using a thumb drive was less complicated than emailing to teacher and then opening up on his/her computer that day.

You're a great kid to support your mother this way.
posted by primate moon at 8:44 AM on June 21, 2013

I teach at a community college, and many of my students are returning adults. I love my older students, because they know why they're there, and they don't mess around! Good for you for encouraging her! If she thinks she's going to be the oldest one in her classes, she's going to be pleasantly surprised.

One thing that everybody struggles with when they start college, but I see it especially in older students, is not knowing who to talk to about what. So you might do some investigation on her school's web site and make a list of everything you think might help her, and put it all in one document, or maybe print it and put it inside a nice planner as suggested above. I would include things like the name and phone numbers of advisors for her major (if she has one), contact info for the "Adult Student Office" if there is such an entity at her school. Don't forget the tutoring services, especially if she has to go back and take all those gen ed's (math!) that she hasn't studied in a long time. If she's a veteran or an international student, there are people who help those specific populations too.

Some schools have free school-specific planners available at the start of a school year, so you might ask their bookstore if they have something like that.

Other things:

- Flash drive on lanyard. Tell her to attach her car keys to it. Most students forget their flash drive in a computer lab at least once in their college career, so at least if her car keys are on it, she'll remember before too long. Tell her to put a plain text file on it with her name and contact info, so if she does lose it and it's found by an honest person, there's a chance it will get returned to her. If your mom is relatively tech-savvy, buy her a Dropbox account instead so she doesn't need a flash drive.

- Parking pass if her school charges for those, or a bus/train pass.

- Cafeteria card if her school has one. Load it up with what you can afford.

- I wouldn't get her an iPad or a other tablet just yet, until she knows what kind of software the school has for her use, and what she'll need to do for classes. It's sometimes difficult for an older student to get back into the swing of taking notes in class anyway, so to add a layer of [possibly unfamiliar] technology on top of that might be too much. YMomMV, of course. If she doesn't have a computer to use at home, I would definitely get her one for those late nights.

I think the most helpful thing you can give her is your unconditional support. Maybe write an encouraging note on nice paper that she can take out and look at when things get stressful?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:51 AM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh, something else: My school charges for printing, so see if you can get a printing swipe card for her. (Although this may be tied to her school ID card, so not something you can get for her.)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:54 AM on June 21, 2013

All the above are great suggestions, especially Supersquirrel's. Older students are wonderful, and I always enjoy them in my classes.

One more suggestion: if your little brother doesn't already do a lot of stuff around the house, sit him down and explain *exactly* what it means for your Mom to go back to university and impress on him, using power tools if necessary, that he NEEDS TO DO SOME OF THE HOUSEWORK NOW.

Teach him how to cook some basic meals. Show him how to do laundry, make beds, pick up, vacuum and do the dishes. Make sure he does this, at least some of the time. Tell him you'll snatch him bald if he makes life hard for your Mom. Follow up. She'll need time to concentrate on her work and she can't do that if the kitchen is always a tip.
posted by jrochest at 8:57 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Inspired by the great responses above, how about getting her a MeFi membership? Seems like this community would be a great, supportive resource if any questions or issues came up.
posted by neroli at 9:01 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

A stapler to keep in her school bag, to staple assignments before handing them in. I highly recommend the Swingline Tot, which is highly portable, uses standard staples, and has a secret compartment for storing extra staples.

If she is the organized sort of person who always staples her assignments at home, she can make friends with her classmates by letting them use it when they need to staple.

A professor who hates it when students don't staple their multi-page assignments. (No, folding the corner down is not sufficient, why would you even think that, and don't get me started on paperclips which catch on everybody else's papers, then pop off and get lost.)
posted by BrashTech at 9:03 AM on June 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

If you are so inclined and she isn't, you could sit down at her computer and make sure it has everything she needs and isn't going to rebel against her when she's trying to write a term paper or something.
posted by juliapangolin at 9:39 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

If she needs to staple things of more than a few sheets, you should get her a heavy-duty stapler with a lever action. I print a lot of articles to annotate, marking to hand back, etc., and they're like night and day compared to a normal stapler.

I'd recommend a specific one, but I'm in the UK. The one I have looks like this. There seem to be various similar ones on so it's not too exotic an item.
posted by danteGideon at 9:40 AM on June 21, 2013

iPad for writing documents
Printer with AirPrint feature
Printer paper
Notebook for note taking if she prefers to write
Lots of pens.
posted by squirbel at 10:04 AM on June 21, 2013

I agree with others that say to go easy on the technology for now and don't get her a tablet. I'm a pretty tech-y guy and even I can't stand doing my "real" work on a tablet. I really like a real computer with a real keyboard and a big-ish screen. I know that tablets work for others but, depending on your mom's technical prowess (and if it's anything like my mom's), the technology may just overwhelm her as "one more thing she has to learn."

I may focus on continuing to support her and getting her stuff to make her life outside of school easier. Paying for garden/lawn care? Paying for a regular housekeeper? Getting her a gift card to the local restaurant/take-out place?

But, really, just keep supporting her. I can't imagine going to school while trying to be a single parent and keep a house running; your support could really make all the difference.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:19 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

It might also be nice to set up a subscribe and save on amazon to send her some favorite study treats once a month or whenever. That way, after classes have started, if she feels like she's drowning in work and made a huge mistake, she'll have a little pick-me-up and encouragement.
posted by itsamermaid at 10:38 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe put some money on her student card, if that's a thing they do at her school? Many schools let students pay for on-campus stuff--food, books, supplies, printing--with an account linked to their student ID or other student card. It's nice to have that to be able to get treats or a last-minute scantron, blue book, etc. (especially since she may not realize she'll need some of these things until the last minute) without having to spend the cash that you'd rather save for groceries and rent.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:51 AM on June 21, 2013

And I also enthusiastically nth the suggestions for printer ink and printer paper (assuming she already has a printer at home--and if not? Get her a printer!). I went through SO MUCH printer paper when I went back to school.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:55 AM on June 21, 2013

I am in the same boat as your mother! I am a 51 single mother with a 16 y/o son. I returned to school after a 30 year hiatus. I am on the Deans list :) Returning to school was scary for me. My classmates are all great and are very encouraging. None of them ever made me feel like an outsider. Matter of fact, more than a few of them asked if they could study with me.

Laser printer is so much better than an ink jet printer. The ink is less expensive too, (I buy the generic version toner). I own this printer and absolutely love it. It is wireless and can print duplex, no need to have it tethered to your computer.

Does she have a smart phone? If so, they have a recording feature on them, no need for a personal micro recorder.

Some nice pens (as in easy to write with) for taking notes. I use Schneider slider Memo pens, they just glide across the paper and do not smudge. My younger classmates have borrowed my pens and loved them so much they bought their own.

The up thread advice on having the teen start doing his share of chores is dead on.

I'll memail you my contact info, please give it to her if she wants to chat.
posted by JujuB at 10:59 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Really great suggestions above. I'd add a couple of things: encourage your mom to make use of her instructors' office hours. A lot of first-time students of any age don't know what they're for and don't make use of them. Let her know she can use them to get help on assignments or advice on how to be most successful in the course. I'm happy when someone actually shows up to my office hours; it gives me an idea of where students are at and an idea of what I might need to go over again with the whole class.

Also, encourage her to use the school's shared computer drive if they have one, and help her figure out remote access. This is a godsend if it's available, because it's another reliable method of backup. Encourage her to back things up religiously in 2 places; flash drives can break/malfunction. Help her avoid this stress!

I think it'd be nice if you printed out this thread for your mom (formatted nicely) and included it in your care package!

Good luck to her--I think she'll get so much out of going back.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:41 PM on June 21, 2013

I'm seconding the computer check advice. Maybe get her an hour with a computer tutor or something, if you think she might need it.

Make sure she has the Microsoft Office Suite - really - not Open Office or similar, the real thing. A lot of my assignments have involved use of MS features like Track Changes, which don't work in analogues (or not as well).

I'm back in graduate school, and I'm nearly a digital native who graduated from college in 1993. Even I was actually kind of started by how much higher education has centered on electronic communications. Registration, syllabi, online discussions, paper submissions, grades, comments, everything is online. Make sure her computer is fast, easy to use, backed up, and properly supplied with software.
posted by Miko at 1:39 PM on June 21, 2013

I'm a number of years younger than your mom, and went to college in the computer-optional days if the mid-1990s, otherwise known as pre-history. I even registered for class by phone, though it was apparent the internet thing was due any quarter. Those days are over, and it's going to be very difficult to rely entirely on public or library computers (or the like).

Computer check:
- MS Office, yes. There are good editions for Student or Home and Business (different combinations of what products are in the suite)
- If Powerpoint is not in Office, download a powerpoint viewer (should be free).
- a lightweight PDF viewer as well as Adobe Reader. Make the lightweight PDF viewer (I like Foxit) the default. Adobe reader has more printing options and such, but it is a behemoth.
- before buying ANY software, inquire about a student discount, often requiring purchases through the school bookstore.
- I second the USB drive, and add that if she doesn't have one with a lanyard, she should get a lanyard for it. Teach her a backup regime for both flashdrive and computer (and any tablet/readers as well).

If possible, scrutinize her class syllabuses for any other software needs, including specialty software for the class.

Speaking of student discounts, Amazon customers with an .edu address get free Amazon Prime, meaning free shipping, lots of downloadable content (including a grade-killing amount of TV/movies, but with a teenager in the house...). There may alos be student rates for transit if applicable. She's still got a while to go before the senior discount kicks in so she might as well take advantage.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:55 PM on June 21, 2013

In the theme of helping her with housework/gardening - perhaps a gift voucher for a local gardening/cleaning place for x hours work? Or instead of an actual voucher, a personal voucher from you saying you will arrange a gardener or cleaner for x hours whenever she feels she'd like it.

Aside from that, a nice study planner for the wall might be good - something like these. She and the son can both put plans on it so they can keep track of each others schedules and see conflicts easily. (My family had an annual planner on the wall every year, and a weekly detailed planner on the fridge where things like 'will be late for dinner' went).
posted by jacalata at 2:23 PM on June 21, 2013

Post-It sticky flags (for marking the edges of pages as you study) are really great and are basically a new consumer product that has developed since she was last in school. (She may be familiar with them from office work if she has done any of that, but they were probably never part of her study routine.) They're cheap and come in fun colors and patterns.
posted by Orinda at 3:27 PM on June 21, 2013

Maybe give her some "coupons" promising your time when things get hectic at school.

Adjusting to the different schedule with her family responsibilities will leave her very little time for herself and at that time (e.g. in the middle of exams) having someone do small chores would lessen her anxiety...

On the same note, maybe buy her certificates for a monthly massage or house cleaning services etc...)
posted by greta_01 at 6:06 PM on June 21, 2013

If you are decent with computers and think she may need a little help, get her set up on a remote assistance program before she starts classes. LogMeIn Pro is $70 a year, and it will let your mom share the desktop with you so that you can troubleshoot with her from your home.

So many college classes/resources are online now... instead of handouts, there might be PDFs to download. Some courses require online discussions or paper submissions. Sometimes you have to run your paper through a plagiarism check online before turning it in. Add in all the library resources, and if your mom is at all timid/uncertain of her computer skills, knowing that you are a phone call and click away will be so helpful.
posted by scarnato at 9:17 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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