School’s Out Forever!

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“If you’re not building the future, you don’t believe there is a future.” – OITNB

I never planned for life after college. I loved being in school and spent a grand total of 30 years in the organizational silo that is the education system in this country. School was something I was good at; it was an escape from a shitty childhood that I honestly never thought I would survive. I never planned for life after college because I did not think I would live to see life after college.

After four degrees, I am officially done with school, and I have been enjoying my retirement these past few months working at a job I enjoy, and trying to figure out what to do with myself. I have not really had any distinct direction. This time has been perhaps the closest thing approximating a vacation I have ever experienced.

After what seemed like a lot of bureaucratic red tape and unnecessary aggravation, my diploma finally arrived today from my most recent and final degree. Not only do I feel a huge sense of relief, but I also have a sense of closure. I have never felt this sense of closure upon obtaining any of my other diplomas; that is partially how I know and am so sure that this is, in fact, the final degree. I have a sense of peace I have not had when completing any other degree.

While my formal education may be complete, I am now a student of the world and continue to learn from books, people, and experiences that surround me. I used my formal education to help me navigate the world of hard knocks and have lived to tell the tale. I quite literally have this great big world at my feet.

Everyone has been asking me about my plans. Thus far, I have had none. I have had ideas. I may teach. I do not feel like teaching right now. I enjoy my job and am enjoying the newfound freedom that I have now that I am not in school. I have joined both a book club and a writing club so that I am still engaged in intelligent conversation on a regular basis with people who are stimulating and authentic.

In addition to my vague notions of potentially teaching on the collegiate level sometime in the future, I also have dreams of travel. I have a passport that has never been stamped. I ran a marathon in Canada shortly after a passport was required for Canada, before the introduction of “enhanced driver’s licenses” for those residents in border states, yet Canada does not stamp the passport. I have a desire to see the world beyond my own country. We only get one life and it is very short. I want to make the most of it while I am here.

My dreams of travel have also been vague. I keep saying that I want to backpack through Europe. I do. It also seems unattainable to a small town girl who never thought to survive childhood and finish school.

I have decided to come up with a three-year plan and to choose a specific destination and start making plans for travel. I figure that if I can put my dreams down on paper and start crunching numbers, then I have a more concrete goal of the amount of money I need to save to fund my trip, as well as a destination, and an anticipated travel year.

I have chosen a three-year plan instead of a five-year plan because that is when I turn 40, and I want to do it big. I am starting to think of how I really want to retire in life in 30 or 40 years after I am done working and not just done being a college student. I am thinking of all the things that I want to see and do and trying to come up with a concrete way to make that happen. I am now planning for a future that I never thought I would have.

School may be done for me. I have finished all of my degrees. I will never stop learning. I love to learn and I know that travel will only help to broaden my horizons. While I look to and build the future, I am enjoying my present. I now have time to read all the books I wanted to read but did not have time to read when I was in school. I now have time to do all the things that I want to do and did not have time to do in school because I was always rushing from home to work to class and trying to fit in all my housework and other obligations between homework and paying bills.

School may be out forever, but I am now building a future. While I have a bunch of fancy degrees, perhaps the greatest thing I have learned in my 30 years of education is that I have a future and it is mine for the choosing. It seems like it took an awful lot of education to learn one simple thing, but I am grateful. I would not change a thing or want it any other way.

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My Biggest Mistake

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I am quickly realizing, as people have been laughing at me the past few weeks that going to grad school is one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I would not recommend it. In fact, given what I have lived through the past five years to try to obtain a graduate education, I am honestly not sure why I even went to grad school.

The only reason I can pinpoint is fear. When I completed the bachelor degree after a 15-year struggle, I did not know what to do with myself. When most little kids respond that they want to be firefighters or ballerinas when they grow up, I was saying I wanted to be a college student. I never planned for or envisioned anything beyond college, so grad school was this mad scramble to try to delay the inevitable push into the real world for which, at 36, I am still not ready to face.

In the past few weeks, I have learned how vastly different grad school is from undergrad. If I had to do it over again, I would have stopped at the bachelor degree.

I have learned in grad school that A’s are handed out whether they are deserved or not. Apparently, when you reach this level of education, you are expected to be good, so they only hand out A’s. While I am sure most people are probably saying, “Take the A and shut up,” I am the type of person who likes to think that my grades are a direct reflection of my effort and mastery of a particular subject matter. It is not possible for everyone to be good at everything. In all of my prior degrees, I have had at least one class in which I had a B+. I am not a perfect person. Why does graduate education give the illusion of perfection? Masters degrees are awarded to people who have not necessarily mastered the subject matter and thus become meaningless.

Second, I worked a lot harder for my master’s degree than I worked in undergrad. To qualify: I overcame many more obstacles in my pursuit of graduate education than I did in the 15 years I spend in undergrad. Some recognition of my effort would be appreciated. Instead, I have found that graduate degrees do not even list your field of study, as you are forced to order transcripts that no employer requests or wants to see, you are not awarded any honors for academic achievements, and you are not given any sort of ceremony or rite of passage to acknowledge the fact that you have sacrificed more in the past 5 years than the entirety of 36 years on this planet to get the degree.

For being the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, grad school has been one huge let down. I would rather run all 14 marathons again back to back than live through grad school again.

Yes, I said it. Running a marathon is easier than grad school.

It’s possible that all of this is simply due to poor choice of academic institution and program, but I have inklings that this situation is pervasive across academia.

I honestly have no idea why I ever went to grad school.

As I stare down a finish line that I now may or may not cross (I seriously do not feel like Defending a thesis I would much rather forget), I realize that the best thing to do at this point is to cut my losses and move forward.

There is no point in analyzing the why or the “what if.” We cannot go back and change the past. There comes a time when you must declare something as a learning experience and move forward because there is nothing you can do other than try to survive the moment in which you now find yourself.

So yes, I do find grad school to be the biggest mistake of my life. If I had to go back and do it again, I never would have went to grad school. However, there is no point in ruminating on the biggest mistake I have ever made and feeling regret. Negative feelings will do nothing to ameliorate the situation I am now facing. Sometimes the best course of action is to cut your losses and move forward.

What I am most looking forward to is reclaiming my life. I am looking forward to rewinding real slow from 5 years of mindless, unnecessary stress that I have just lived through. I am hoping that there will again come a point in my life sometime in the future where I enjoy learning again. I enjoyed school for the first 25 years of my life. These last 5 years, I have seriously been questioning the purpose of formal education.

Life is not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes we need to make mistakes to realize what is truly important in life. Grad school has been one huge, expensive colossal waste of my time, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and to have the ability to always move forward.

The Penultimate Paper

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Note: The above photo was taken shortly after I completed my first masters thesis, which was 120 pages. Today is nothing like that.

I just submitted the last paper. It’s not a big deal. There is always a final paper, right? Well, right, except this one is huge. After almost 20 years as a professional college student resulting in numerous degrees, this is the last paper I wrote before I complete my thesis. That’s not a huge deal, either. I have already written and successfully defended a 120-page masters thesis in another field. Ultimately, my thesis for this masters degree will be the final paper ever. So, I guess this one is technically, in the words of Monty Python, the penultimate paper.

It took me 7 years to complete an associate’s degree, 3 years to complete a professional degree, 15 years to complete a bachelor’s degree, and when I am done this fall, 5 years to finish a master’s degree. My life has been all about school.

When you ask most kids what they want to be when they grow up, they respond with cute answers like ballerinas, firefighters, or veterinarians. Not me. When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my response was “college student.” I started giving that response at about age 10. I had literally no plan of what I wanted to do after college. I never imagined a life after school. I just knew that where I was, in grade school, middle school, and high school, was so ultimately miserable that College was like the Holy Grail (Monty Python again – it must be that type of day).

I was so focused on going to college that I skipped a grade and graduated a year early. I did not just skip any grade. I skipped 10th grade. While most girls my age were engrossed in how high they could tease their bang with Aqua Net, which boys were going to light up their see through slim phones, and trying to perfect the ultimate roll on their jeans, I was reading Flannery O’Connor, Jean Paul Sartre, and studying just what really makes poison dart frogs poisonous.

The only thing I’ve been good at is school.

I survived a shitty childhood by being good at school, and basking in the praise and attention of my teachers and instructors for doing such a good job. I just want to stay in school forever.

When I realized I was actually going to finish my bachelor degree, panic set in. What do I do after school? I had no plan for this. Life after college? What is that? Graduation is not supposed to happen. I had a mid-life crisis over graduation. Granted, it was my fourth graduation ceremony, but that one is particular held a sense of doom. I was so clueless, that I remember standing in line at the ceremony getting ready to walk across the stage when someone yelled “Congratulations” at me because I was apparently graduating Summa Cum Laude. I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t even know I was graduating Summa Cum Laude until I was standing in that line to walk across a stage.

I now know that I was 6th in my class of over 2,000. Apparently, that’s really awesome, but to me, it’s just a pretty gold sticker and some fancy looking letters on a piece of paper.

Back to the penultimate paper.

In my panic over graduation and trying to figure out how I cold possibly graduate and still stay in school, I decided to go to grad school. My idea was that with a graduate degree, I could be a college professor, thus staying in college forever. Perfect.

However, after working on two masters degrees in five years, and being buried in an exorbitant amount of student loans, I have decided this is the last degree. 20 years in any field is a career. I have spent 20 years as a professional college student. Tap, tap, I’m out.

The fact that I just wrote the penultimate paper is a huge deal. It signifies the sunset of a huge part of my life and identity for 30 years of my life.

I’m trying not to stress. I am going with the flow. I am looking forward to focusing on my thesis (the real LAST paper), as I absolutely love my topic and my field. I cry over it. I laugh over it. I just love my topic. I am sure once it is over, the panic will set in again. I am hoping that when that point comes, I will be able to take it in grace and stride.

But for now, I just gave a sigh over the submission of the penultimate paper.

I am about to take my last math class ever. Yet another statistics class. After my time in nuclear physics, I have taken a great many math classes. While I may be able to find the square area of a horse, that knowledge has done nothing to help me in life. Don’t even get my started on algebra- I can tell you right now, there is no point in dwelling over your “X” (ex?) because life has taught me that the “Y” is more important – like “Y did I date you?” or “Why am I here?”

I am relieved that the penultimate paper is done. I am unsure what the final paper will make me feel like when my thesis is complete. I am hoping that I will be able to find ways to enjoy my retirement from being a professional college student. I am still slightly unsure of what I want to be when I grow up. Sometimes its fun to ask kids just so I can get some ideas. I’m hoping this time when I graduate, that I do not have the level of panic I had with my bachelor’s degree. Unless, I have to adult now. I just don’t think I can adult.

I may have to be an adjunct. If retirement gets to be too much, I can just go back to school by teaching. But, for now, I am going to relish in the achievement of completing the penultimate paper. I may even celebrate with a mariachi band.

(To get these references, you may need to view Monty Python’s “The Last Supper.” You can find it on youtube).