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Dave OliverHappy Birthday, Mr. Graduate

By Dave Oliver

So there I was on my 28th birthday, alone, stocking shelves in an auto parts store. I got more depressed with each air filter I stacked. I had a dead-end job that I hated, no money, and the future wasn’t looking any better. Happy birthday, loser.

I often fantasized about having a real job in
advertising or journalism, a job where I could actually make a living and find personal fulfillment. However, those types of jobs almost always require a college degree, something I didn’t have.

I considered going back to school numerous times but usually talked myself out of it. Some of my most convincing excuses were, “it’s too expensive,” “a degree doesn’t guarantee a better job,” and “it will take too long.” I once told a friend who was encouraging me to go back to school that “I’ll be 28 by the time I graduate, and way too old to start a new career.” So there I was at 28, recently married, and still stacking cases of antifreeze for eight dollars an hour.

The Beatles song “I’m a loser” played non-stop in my head that night. The urge to go back to school felt stronger than it had in a long time. The next day, before I could talk myself out of it, I signed up for an English class at my local community college. My life would never be the same.

I sat down at my uncomfortable little desk and a short time later it was as if somebody plugged me into an electrical outlet. My passions kicked into overdrive, ideas started flowing, I was writing political essays, receiving praise and encouragement from the instructor, and just enjoying the classroom enviroment. The experience was an escape from the desperation I felt at my dead-end job. I finished the class with an 'A' and a renewed sense of my abilities - that class turned out to be a much-needed shot of self esteem. After getting a taste, I had to keep going. I was totally psyched and felt like nothing could stand in my way. However, not everyone in my family shared my enthusiasm.

My wife remarked in frustration that I was wasting my time and would never finish. A family friend told me I was being selfish and wasting money that my family desperately needed on school and that I should get a second job instead. I compromised, got a second job, took another class the following quarter and just kept going, three credit hours at a time.

I soon realized that if I was going to finish school before I was a senior citizen I needed to take more than one class per quarter. This became difficult as my work schedule often conflicted with the school schedule. The Internet was just catching on so there were no classes online at that point, but my college did offer telecourses, which turned out to be the perfect solution to my scheduling conflicts. These courses were structured the same as the as the classroom versions but instead of attending class, students watched a video, read the textbook and took tests every couple weeks. Taking these classes helped me to build up credits more quickly. After about a year, I met with a campus advisor hoping she could help me figure out exactly what I was doing and why.

After I briefly described the types of careers I was interested in and that I had a family to support and couldn’t transfer out of state, the advisor handed me a brochure for Columbia College Chicago’s Marketing Communications program. It was perfect, the exact degree I was looking for and at a respected school close to home. She even gave me a worksheet that showed how many credits I needed and what classes I had to take to transfer there. It was like someone handed me a road map after I had been driving around lost for hours. I could now see some light at the end of the tunnel.

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