Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Relentless Pursuit of Higher Education--15 Years On.

It just occurred to me that 2010 is an anniversary of the second most important life event the first of course, being the six years spent in the employ of Uncle Sam.

Fifteen yrs ago I walked across the stage at the old David Lawrence Convention Center to receive my associate's degree from The Community College of Allegheny County. I followed that landmark event five years later when I processed across the stage at Sewall Center to get my bachelor's degree from what was then Robert Morris College. This was the culmination of what I called The Relentless Pursuit of Higher Education, a seven and a half year march/slog/journey/self assessment/vision quest/rite of passage/what have you, in an effort to get a college education. This process involved countless bus and shuttle trips across the length and breadth of Allegheny County from Monroeville to Moon Township.

Thousands of dollars of financial aid was ginned up to arrange for tuition, and thousands more of out of pocket money were spent in purchasing textbooks, most of which were never used again after the class for which they were required was completed. Hell, many of them were never even cracked once bought. Often at the instructors request. A lot of them were sold back to the Boyce Campus and Robert Morris bookstores for a pittance of their original selling price, a roughly equal number of them were left abandoned on benches, tables, desks and other places after attempts to sell them back to those same bookstores proved unsuccessful. A lot of bad cafeteria lunches were eaten, I sat through hundreds of lectures of varying qualities were given by professors of varying abilities. I did the usual college thing, took tests. stood in line to register for classes, pored over the catalog countless times to navigate the rough seas that were degree requirements and hustled from end of campus to the other to make it to class on time.

I joined a bunch of clubs, qualified for membership in an honor society, eventually becoming its local chapter president after no one else was crazy enough to take on the task. I had a full slate of extracurricular activities. I also had a taste of intercollegiate athletics when I decided to try out and was accepted to Boyce's bowling team. I accumulated a wall full of certificates of merit, made the Dean's List four times, the National Dean's List twice, was listed in the Who's Who Among Students in America's Junior Colleges and was voted The Male Student of the Year in 1994. And that was just at Boyce Campus.

Robert Morris was pretty much the same thing except, my QPA there wasn't quite high enough to get into any honor societies. Although I did complete my goal of graduating with a 'B' average. (3.07) And I didn't even try out for their bowling team because a 165 average with a barely controlled hook wasn't going to cut the ice against a bunch of guys who could roll 200's with their eyes closed. But after two and a half years of shuttle rides, lectures, homework, and three Phi Beta Lambda trophies later, I had a piece of paper signed by then President Nicholson that officially made me a member of the Robert Morris community, a privilege and honor that I am extremely proud of and will trumpet to anyone who stands still long enough to listen.

But even in spite of all those accomplishments and memories that I will always treasure, I still hadn't a clue of what the hell I wanted to do with my life. to this day I still don't. I chose my majors based on my heart's leanings and basically what wasn't too difficult to accomplish considering that I was attending college full-time while working full-time. I didn't take advantage of the available career counseling, and academic advising, preferring to put my schedules together by myself. As a result the degrees that I busted my ass to get really weren't worth all that much in the job market. I made the mistake of chasing the paper, but not paying attention to what was going to happen once I grabbed it. That's a common theme with me, I guess.

I'm not very good in following up. As I've said in previous blog entries, I have a very 'seat of the pants', 'cross that bridge when I come to it', laissez faire attitude when it comes to life. I can take that approach because I have no one but myself that depends on me to make the right decisions. Many times, that attitude has served me well, and an equal number of times it has bitten me on the ass. The law of averages, as it were. I knew that I'd ultimately have to figure out how to make these very expensive pieces of paper work for me once it came to making a living, but either because I was unprepared to do this, too lazy or scared to try, and was just happy to chase the paper and nothing else, I'm doing the same job in the same industry that I was doing before I went on this Quixotic crusade.

I may be pretty liberal politically and socially, but I'm very conservative when it comes to taking risks. You could put a hundred elastic bungee cords around my feet that have the combined tensile strength to hold back a 747 at full power, but I still won't jump off that bridge because I'm worried that all those cables will chose to fail at just that right moment, causing me to become no more than a dark smudge on the earth where I landed. But I don't plan well, and the future as unpredictable as it is for someone who has all their ducks in a row is downright terrifying to people like me who continue to dance on the tightrope without a net. I guess in some ways, I'm taking a huge risk, by being afraid of taking risks.

I still refuse to believe that The Relentless Pursuit of Higher Education was a bust. I'm still doing the chimp work, but I have found the writing jones that was dormant for so many years. I never did a lot of writing in high school, but all of a sudden as soon as I started college, I could write long, well researched, and interesting papers that caused my profs to gush in their praise. I found out that I could coherently organize my thoughts and put them down easily. I didn't have to write first and second drafts and partially that was because I went to school in the age of word processors that allowed on-the-fly editing. but I never wrote multiple drafts for term papers. I wrote it once, checked it for flow and grammatical errors and spelling and turned it in, more often than not, getting better grades than most of my classmates. And of course the blog and the fanfic "The Song of the Goddesses"are further proof that the years spent trying to improve myself through college weren't a total bust. I met a lot of good people during the journey, some of whom I still keep in touch with after 15 yrs.

I also think that maybe because I was attending school during the day and working at night, I was competing against a more traditional aged student while I was 12 years older, with all the advantages of maturity that comes with getting my ass kicked by adulthood. My wild oats had already been sown and sold to market, and while I strove to have as much of a traditional college experience as a guy in his mid 30's could have, I didn't have the distractions of parties, frats, and other stuff to get in my way. I was one of the oldest students in the Sports Management Dept at RMU in 2000. I took my classes seriously. I answered questions when the other students were still trying to get through the alcoholic fog of last night's party. On my off nights from work, I'd get on campus at 9:00 and 10:00 am and not leave until 12 hours later when I had to catch that last shuttle. That wasn't partying. That's being holed up in the library or in the computer labs doing research or writing papers. Yeah, when the RMU chapter of PBL went to the annual state conference, I won a few trophies in testing, and I got nice and liquored up with my younger classmates while at convention, but I never allowed that to get in the way of my focus towards getting good grades. I had a lot of fun, and if given the opportunity, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I was never more alive than that period from 1992 to 2000. I kicked ass and took names and have a lot of memories that I will always treasure.

But after the cap and gown was taken off and put away, and the trophies, certificates and plaques were boxed up, what did I ultimately have to show for it? Memories and trophies don't translate into job offers. The Pursuit was not a failure. I learned a lot about myself in the journey. I had a helluva lot of fun and I worked like a dog for what I achieved, but while I busted my ass during the journey, I didn't take account of what I should do once the journey ends. And to this day, I am reminded of that fatal mistake constantly.

The moral of the story is that it's important to consider all the factors about an undertaking as big as going to college, especially as a non-traditional student. For us, the planning has to be even more thoughtfully executed because we may only have this one shot to get it right. Kids in their 'teens and twenties can screw up more than once and still rebound, Once you get into the thirties and forties, the clock is against you, and you can't afford a big error in judgment.