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Larraine JohnsonGrad School or Bust

by Larraine Johnson

Moving through the professional ranks in the 21st Century is useless unless you have an advanced degree. Years ago it was possible to begin a career right out of high school and make headway into a chosen field. As a young woman, I did. The field work was public housing administration. Truthfully, this is not a field of work that well-educated, ivy leaguers rush towards. Working with people with limited resources can be challenging; I found the systems that served them to be the most difficult. The largest funding base remains state or federal funding which can be subject to electoral change every four years. Funding initiatives come and go, leaving these needy populations underserved. A combination of bleeding hearts (like me) and the college educated holding degrees as diverse as Art History to MBAs have traditionally served these communities.

Serving from the heart, I was good at what I did. The problem I encountered was when I wanted to change jobs; I did not have a college degree. Struggling through nine years of scholastic time over a thirteen year span of taking classes between little league games, science fairs and everyday single parenting, I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2004. As I gathered strength to receive my diploma, I knew the advanced degree was needed to compliment my job experience. I live in a regional job market where there are at least a dozen colleges, universities offering post-secondary training opportunities. With 70 percent of the surrounding workforce holding associates and bachelor’s degrees, I knew it was grad school or bust!

During one of my women’s studies classes, we talked about the employment market and the changes from the 1960s and 1970s. Since I started my career as a young woman, I was able to retire with a pension. In our class, we spoke of women and men having multiple careers in the future unlike the lifelong careers of the past. With the rapid change in technology, the dynamics of manufacturing has been grossly affected. Recently the Columbus Dispatch reported that the State of Ohio has lost 200,000 jobs in the last decade. I was serving a small Ohio, Appalachian community during that period when the little community of 15,000 lost 1,000 jobs. It was sad to hear about entire families, mother and father, second generation sons and daughters losing their livelihoods. “I thought the mill would always be there,” one lady said with great remorse. That woman had begun another career as a pre-school teacher after receiving job training benefits.

I was fortunate in that I had a good sense of me after retirement in 2002. As a single mother in and out of relationships, I forced myself to do the personality inventories, etc. to prioritize what and who was important. With help from my educated daughter and occupational counseling, I discovered that I am well suited for the social work field as I have a capacity for assisting people with limited resources. While my discovery process took years, it is a necessary place for any non-traditional student considering first-time or re-entry into a post-secondary program. I found out very quickly that college tuition is expensive, financial aid is limited at the undergraduate level and nearly non-existent at the graduate school level. Unlike my younger peers, I do not have the luxury of time when it comes to multi-year degree choices. I love going to school but I want to work in my field before I grow too old to care! For others with time and without focus you may experience the frustration of changing programs, changing schools which can add additional years to your desired end as well as losing precious credit hours already obtained.

In spite of my “preparation,” I was ill-prepared for grad school. During my first quarter I took daytime classes with students who were much younger than I was with limited experience. I was intimidated by their ability to grasp the subject content much quicker than I did. I discovered that the daytime classes were subject to more testing which terrified me. And then I remembered that there are evening classes! Evening classes were largely returning adults who had work place experience. In most cases, the instructors were different as was the approach. Testing methods for the evening students were largely take-home tests, essays; in-class testing would be multiple choice and short answer. Overall I found comfort and companionship with the evening students. Eventually I returned to a part-time position for days and attended school at nights. Most of us arrived with dinner in our hands, a cup of coffee to stay on task and a great commitment to the subject matter at hand.

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