For the Curious and the Stout-Hearted: Year One Reflections

Ever wondered what it’s like to put your life on hold and go back to school? Well, here you go. Here’s what I learned about myself and others:

It’s a huge sacrifice.  Going back to school sucks, and this is from someone who loves school. Putting aside the actual expense for now (see below) let’s just look at the psychic cost to you and your family: you are working all the time. All. The. Time. Think of everything you like to do, big and small, and put that in a mental basket, along with the friends you haven’t called in months and the family members who are sick of hearing your constant whine about homework, and call it Collateral Damage. This is where all the people who used to think you were fun to hang out with reside.

It’s expensive. There’s the tuition, fees, books, uniforms, knives — all calculable. But most (well, at least many — not mine, fortunately) culinary arts programs are designed for full-time students. You move through in core blocks, no substitutions. You may be able to work part-time (good luck with that), which means you will reduce your current income by at least half, but try not to think about that or you will never feel like you can actually afford to do it. Suffice it to say there is lots more money going out, lots less money coming in. So take all the things you used to like — like going out for coffee, or lunch — chuck them into the Collateral Damage basket, and get used to feeling like a broke loser when your friends’ birthdays roll around. This is serious business for career changers/re-entry students who may have any or all of the following: kids, mortgages (or serious rents not involving three other roommates), cars made after 2005, and previous student loans.   And while we are on the subject of students….

The Other Students. If you’re anything like me, you might think Other People are a huge pain to deal with, so try going back to school  with them. I’m going to sort students into two basic categories here: 18-22 year-olds, and Re-Entry students. Based on my six years of teaching English Composition at the community college where I am now a student, and five years working in Residential Life at the college where I earned my Masters degree, college freshman are a marvel. I really like them. I really do, and I’m not just saying that. They are like bright, shiny pennies with the world at their feet and even though they might not realize it, they’ve got that precious commodity that you don’t realize you’ve lost until you see it in them: idealism. They are also, by turns, confused, excitable, strident, and brash, with a bored affectation that is laughably, and falsely, world-weary. Top it off with a dose of know-it-all zest that borders on mouthy, put them in a room with twenty other students, and call it Freshman Comp. Or Cooking 121. Or any other survey class where nobody knows nothing from nothing yet. Then ask them to do a boatload of work, and watch one-third to one-half of them self-destruct.

Except that I don’t want to self-destruct. I’m a Re-Entry student, and I mean business. So get outta my way. Re-entry students are their own glorious category. They are back for a reason. They’re not just taking classes to stay on their parents’ health insurance. The stakes are generally pretty high for this group — clearly, something is not working out right in their current career and they want a change badly enough to sacrifice for it, big time (see above). As a career-changer, I’m in this group. We’re focused, and driven. We want to know exactly what, when, where, and how. If you want to be around some serious students, take a night class. Those people really want it. A lady in one of my classes this semester has triplet infants at home. TRIPLETS. She knows how to work hard. I’d take her on my team any day.

Career changers don’t mess around, and this can be very off-putting to the other kidlets. But, sorry Charlie: I can’t afford to take three hours to do something that should take one hour. I spent two entire 75 minute class periods this semester making a poster — a POSTER – as a group effort. A POSTER. Which, by the way, ended up having not one, but two hand-lettered (who hand-letters a poster past sixth grade, for heaven’s sake? It’s not a garage sale) spelling errors on it by the end of class, so I had to take it and re-do it after class, anyway, which cost me another 45 minutes. Which reminds me…

Group Work. I hate it. Which brings me to…

What I learned about myself. “Overachievers” are not good team players. We’re precise. We’re prepared. We’ve read all the readings. We’ve done our production sequences. We think everyone should be taking this assignment/project/class as seriously as we do, and when they don’t, it bugs us because its our grade on the line, and that ain’t cool. I’ve gotten the definite impression that other students think we are a drag.

I’ve been called an overachiever at least a dozen times this year, which is funny since I don’t recall being called that before — not in undergrad, not in grad. Control freak? Yes. Micro-manager? Uh huh. Type A? Ok, although I don’t actually agree with that one. But “over achiever”? That  didn’t come up until I hit community college…and something about it rubs me the wrong way. I take issue with the desire to do one’ s best being cast as a social or character flaw.  Wanting an “A” isn’t overachieving. It’s just achieving, and I think it’s a pretty worthy goal. I admire people who take themselves seriously as learners and push themselves to do as well as they can in whatever it is they undertake.  I respect that. So, big ups to overachievers!

I’m saying “overachiever” but I really don’t care for that term. It doesn’t sound nice, does it? Put “over” in front of anything and dollars to donuts it’s pejorative: over-dressed, over-done, over-the-hill, over-achiever. Its use implies there is something wrong with achievement and I think there’s something wrong with thinking there’ s something wrong with achievement.  But that’s probably just me being over-analytical.

Summary: It has been a heck of a year. I would try to cash in on the ol’  “I laughed, I cried..” bit, but I don’t remember laughing much. What I do remember are hours and hours and hours of difficult, confusing, unfamiliar work forcing me to bend my brain around subjects about which I knew very little. It has been a year of pure, hardcore skill acquisition.  Being out of my element, being back at the bottom, is extremely uncomfortable. Being wrong over and over again sucks — until the time you get it right; then you exhale and think to yourself, “Damn. Finally.” And that’s why you’re here, right? To do something new, and to get it right?

So, it’s worth it. If you are thinking about going back to school, think about all the things I’ve said. It’s quite a tally. Then, think about everything you would stand to gain. What will be your measure of success?  The long term success of this endeavor remains to be seen, but to measure my short-term success, I table all the hassle and heartache of those sixteen week blocks and think solely of the academic experience itself: the adrenaline, the satisfaction, the flush of pride from succeeding in something difficult. Definitely worth it.

Stay tuned for Year Two.

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2 responses

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I have experienced this very thing you speak of! To the boyfriend who has not been happy with me, I said, “Look! This is what we’ve both been dealing with!” Nicely put.

  2. Pingback: On Being A Prepper | Bean Pie and Baking

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