For some reason, I’ve been fixating on going back to school lately. It makes me think back to my non-traditional path to university, and how many things I learned the hard way. (I learn pretty much everything the hard way; it tends to stick in your memory longer…)
I got accepted to my first choice school, based entirely on my then-boyfriend’s help with applications, scheduling the SAT and ACT, giving me rides, tutoring me in math, etc. (He has a PhD now and he wound up marrying a molecular biologist). The acceptance letter came, and with it, a financial aid package that did not account for a fairly significant chunk. I had no idea what to do next. I’d never had a real job and I didn’t know how to drive or how I would get to Illinois. I didn’t go. (Past Self, you should have taken the letter to the guidance counselor, where you would have found out how to apply for a student loan).
At 22, I got married, partly because I had it in my head that being married would mean I wouldn’t have to report my parents’ income on the financial aid application. (True, but a decision with dire consequences). At some point, I rode the bus to PSU and picked up a course catalog, because I didn’t know much about the Internet back then. We still used floppy disks! I think it was several months later when I applied, because I didn’t know that you can start any term you like – there’s no need to wait for September. I had also read a huge stack of books and written a research paper because I thought you had to write an essay. (I never showed it to anyone).
I was working full time, so I would ride my bike to campus, shower at the gym, and take a morning class. Then I would ride my bike to work and put in my eight hours, taking a short lunch. At the end of the day, I would ride my bike back to campus for my afternoon and evening classes. All I knew about credit-hours was that the more you took, the cheaper they were per unit. There was nobody to tell me that 14 credits and a full-time job is a pretty heavy load. I would ride my bike home in the dark and rain and settle in to do my homework, then go to bed for 3-4 hours of sleep. I just paid my tuition every quarter and bought my books with cash.
I didn’t know that ‘undergrad’ or ‘undergraduate’ meant what you do before you get your bachelor’s degree. I didn’t know what grad school was. I thought those ‘101’ numbers before classes referred to the floor of the building, or maybe a geographical sector of campus, which is how I found my freshman self struggling to pull a B in a 400-500 level course on neurolinguistics.
I made the Dean’s List. I didn’t know what that was either.
In my sophomore year, I started collapsing on the floor a lot. I fainted at work and I fainted at the grocery store. I got put on beta blockers. The tech who did the ultrasound on my heart, after the ECG, told me about her experience in medical school and why her hair was prematurely white. Something to do with being “Type A” and too ambitious and not sleeping enough? Pfft, I dunno. I dropped out in my first term. Then I got divorced and found myself couch-surfing in Eugene.
I wanted to apply to school again after taking a year off. Once again I got hung up on wanting to start in the fall and missing an application deadline, and I wound up waiting an extra year. Then it turned out that, as a transfer student, I was supposed to have a particular math credit, which I did not. I went to the community college to take a placement test, but the class I needed was impacted, and I showed up to find I was quite a ways down the waiting list. This would not do. I took the bus to the university to ask what to do next, feeling very brave and headstrong. Much to my surprise, the drop-in guidance counselor went down the hall, asked a senior adviser, and came back with my math requirements waived! I spent a grand total of one day in math class my entire time in college. It made me start to take seriously the idea of asking for advice sometimes!
I got my dorm assignment before I got my acceptance letter or financial aid package, and I remember feeling stymied about whether I would actually get in. A hugely pregnant friend helped me move all my belongings to my fourth-floor walk-up. Somehow I figured out how to get around campus, how to find my textbooks, how to use the reserve library, how to use my dining hall card, how to get a locker at the rec center, how to get a work-study job… I got on the Dean’s list again, every term except for the one when I missed being academically disqualified by a fraction of a grade point. I graduated a few weeks shy of my 29th birthday and my whole family drove down to watch me walk.
I changed my major four times. Evidently my high school self thought she was going to become an English teacher, a job that now holds no interest for me whatsoever. A wiser person would have just been ‘undeclared’ and taken generic pre-requisite courses for the first two years. Freshman me wanted to teach English overseas and chose to major in Linguistics, after a kerfuffle about a TESOL certificate. Junior me wanted a degree in Classics and thought it would be a great idea to study Latin and Attic Greek, even though nobody seemed to know what ‘Classics’ were and nobody living spoke those languages. (I could learn to pronounce ‘baccalaureate’ and ‘cum laude’ and maybe figure out what they meant, too). Senior me was starting to feel frantic about graduating and realized we had somehow racked up almost enough voluntary history credits to qualify, so History is what I wound up with. My starting hypothesis, that getting a degree in anything would improve my job prospects and draw a higher income, and that nobody would actually care what I studied, proved true. The degree paid for itself the first year with the increased income I pulled down. As pieces of paper go, it’s worth more than any of the paper in my wallet…
I had a lot of advantages as a returning student. I was fully committed. I knew how to keep house and shop for groceries and pay bills. I didn’t care about partying. I was street smart. I loved school and I loved being in the library and I loved reading my assignments and I loved writing papers. I could type nearly 100 words per minute. There was a guy in my Greek class who was about 80, and a 40ish guy living in my friend’s dorm with a family he saw on weekends, so I didn’t even feel that old. I went to school with single moms and wondered how the heck they did it. I went to class with unmotivated 19-year-olds and wondered why they did it. Going to school for me was a bit like starting out as a bowl of cherries and a bag of flour, and coming out the other side as a pie.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.