Monday, September 2, 2013

You've seen me harp on this before: never give up, because you can do whatever really means something to you. There is no such thing as too old, too dumb, too slow, too quiet, or, for that matter, too young. If you have a goal, you can reach it.

In Method Acting school, they taught us that we never needed to know how we were going to do something onstage.  What we had to know was what we were going to do, and why we were going to do it. The "how" was going to arise from the "what" and the "why" organically, without our fussing over particular gestures or facial expressions.

While that works very well on stage, and for that matter in television and radio announcing, that mental technique takes a real leap of faith when you're changing your life to return to school, change jobs, have your first child, or retire on a small budget. To the Method, I have to add, if you want to do it, you can find help. Look for scholarships, grants, education programs, workshops, whatever might be useful.  You might be surprised: if your credit union offers a seminar on housing costs, or the auto association presents a class on inexpensive travel, you could learn something that you can add into your own mix. Your education or retirement or great American novel doesn't have to look like anyone else's. It just has to look like what you want. If it stops being what you want, you have your own permission to change your mix, I hope.

This diatribe is brought on by the triumph today of Diana Nyad, who, at age 64, swam from Havana to Florida. If nothing else, she's shown the world that there are even fewer boundaries than we imagine. For every person who says "too old," the response from now on should be, "Yeah, I probably am, but when did you last swim for 53 hours, or write a thesis, or shoe a horse, or even sing a song to your parents? What's your excuse for not doing anything memorable in your life so far?"

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dear Pam,

I am in total panic over this paper, because it needs to be perfect, and I don't think I did enough research and the professor doesn't like me and I don't know what to do next and there are too many possibilities because he didn't narrow the topic down and tell me how to write a thesis statement and I think I'm gonna be sick. What can I do now to get an A on this paper that's due day after tomorrow?

-- Alphonse

Dear Al,

Shut up and write as if your next meal depends on it.


P.S. Swear off conjunctions.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

As you may have noticed, it's been a while. I graduated from college and felt that I had nothing more to say about the process of getting a degree late in life. Silly me.

For about six months after I got the degree in my hand, I looked desperately for work. It really was the "rug pulled out from under me" experience when I discovered that many (but not all) employers didn't want a newly graduated English major who is above a certain age. Big-Box Mart had a dandy greeter job to offer, but that's another post. Those months were harsh, and I was becoming rather bitter. I felt like jumping up on a Starbucks table and yelling, "I don't want to be a supervisor! I don't want to order people around! I just want to write marketing and site content!"

That, however, would have been crazy.

Instead, I went to a conference presented by an international organization I had joined in college. I got a special admissions rate because I was an unemployed scholar. Putting aside the medieval imagery of the wandering, ragged mendicant for a while, I attended sessions and looked at books. That's where it got interesting for about 18 months. I was contracted to write about Lewis Carroll in a series of three e-books. The royalties will never do more than pay for the occasional ice cream cone, but the project kept me busy and preoccupied with academic research. Also, it kept me on campus, in the library and around professors and monks. This paid off quite unexpectedly.

Last spring, as everyone was packing up after graduation, a professor offered me the chance to fill in as a senior lecturer in a team-teaching class that he would not be able to cover. It's a one-semester gig, but it again provides access to the academic library system, which is vital for serious research into literary and philosophical topics. It also means that I'll be working with students, correcting papers (a lot) and exploring the issues that show up when minds try to tackle new topics in new ways. I'm hoping that the semester will be productive for the students -- and that I don't kill any of the plants entrusted to my care by the absent professor.

He'll be back by the winter holidays.  If the plants die, perhaps I will be able to deflect his wrath by putting up a huge sparkly wreath in their place.

More later. One more thought, though: It is never too late to learn, to get that degree. You can be a little ill and 47 years old, and the children may not be at all cooperative, and the house may be a wood-heated, drafty disaster. If you don't go back to school, you will still be mired in the same state. If you do go back, your condition will be different, because you will start thinking in terms of solutions. And if you graduate and the new, munificent job still doesn't show up, make a job.

As the saying goes, God will provide. Put some faith in yourself, and in Him. Both are good investments.

Friday, June 24, 2011

An Unlonely Number

Our greatest accomplishments require time alone.  If the young Einstein had been chatting with his buddies on that city trolley around a century ago, we still might not have the theory of relativity, and E=MC(squared) might be just another meaningless bit of formula that never attached itself to a concept. The Williams sisters have spent a lot of quality time with the ball machine, perfecting those killer shots. St. Augustine, Thoreau, Marx, and even the party boy of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald, used solitude to think, to dream, and to write ideas that shook the world.

If you're considering going back to school at whatever level, and you fear being cut off from your social life, bear in mind that in order to become the person you really are, you need to spend time with yourself.  That old cliche' about loving yourself is fine, but what real accomplishment requires is that you really know yourself so you can open your heart and your life. Then your true self can been seen in the world around you through your work, not just your voice.

So many people worry about being alone.  They fill their days and nights with movement and casual friends, labor and workmates, hobbies and trips to the gym, the beach, the hardware store, Acapulco, the sushi bar . . . And when they finally get home, they fill the air around them with their music, and the surround sound from the TV and the phone calls to more and more people as they try to fill every hour in the days to come.

Alternatively, why not turn off all the noise? Stop answering the cell phone for two days. No email for a whole weekend. Turn off the stereo and the iPod. Cancel a few social events and put the gardening and hot yoga aside for a while, and just see what you really think. Listen to yourself when you are thinking about something more important than your credit card balance, and get familiar with that voice.

That's the voice you'll hear a lot once you're back in class, because you'll be spending more time alone than you do now, studying, thinking, planning, and executing. Eventually in the educational process, each student discovers that solitude is both a treasure and a key that unlocks even more delights than those noisy people can ever imagine.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Relentless, But in a Good Way

Just recently, I bought a gizmo. This is the third or fourth gizmo I've bought from the same company, but it's been a few years since I purchased the last one. I like the new gizmo even more than I liked the old gizmo: it does what it is supposed to do, it's dependable, and it's cute. As for the company that makes the gizmo, I have no real opinion. Same for the company that sold it to me. Nonetheless, the two companies, thanks to this simple financial transaction, are now driving me nuts trying to be my new best friend.

Since I handed them the money to pay for the gizmo, I have had three phone calls, four emails, three snailmails, and three quizzes from these folks. The gizmo and I have taken to hiding in the house with the blinds drawn because I've started imagining the gizmo's parent company sending out a crack paramilitary troupe just to make sure everything is okay with my customer satisfaction, since I waited 24 hours to respond to their last survey request.

On reflection, I know that this is just the current mode of post-sales marketing. Someone somewhere at the gizmo's factory wants to find out why I bought the gizmo. So does someone at the place where I bought it. Luckily, I know why I bought the gizmo: I want to use it.

All this persistence is good, though, because it reminds me of the most essential tool in seeking out an education at whatever academic level. Relentless persistence will keep the non-trad student going back to class for every meeting, writing copious notes, and then following the professor to his/her office to learn even more during the posted office hours. While traditional young students will worry that they shouldn't be bothering the professor, or that their questions are too dumb, or that the professor doesn't like answering questions, the non-trad has been around long enough to know that the office hours are part of the academic package that comes in exchange for that insanely large tuition-and-fees check. That persistence that you learned on the job, that got the daily, weekly, and quarterly projects and reports done, is what will mark you out as a student who gives a damn, and gets the As.

Now, if only I could convince the gizmo's parent company that they have been sufficiently persistent. Maybe I should send them an A, and a shiny gold star as a bonus.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Real Help

This blog gets a little repetitive for some people. I spend a lot of time being awfully rah-rah-rah, in my efforts to support non-traditional students who are considering going back to school. The fact is, though, that I needed (and sometimes still need) a lot of support, and I don't want anyone to miss out on learning just because no one is standing right there at the registrar's office yelling, "Sign up! Do it now!"

I realize, though, that some non-trads will never consider going back to school because they think they may have a learning disability, vision problems, attention deficits, or really bad writing habits. That's a shame, because the modern university, as well as most community colleges, offers support for people who have a steeper hill to climb than many of us.

At St. Martin's University, we have the Learning and Writing Center; the equivalent facility is right in the center of things on the University of Washington campus. Besides the usual tutoring in math, philosophy, the sciences, and Japanese, French, German, and English, these centers also offer supportive services for all kinds of learning problems. They also offer peer readers, to help students turn out writing assignments, but for now, let's talk about the support.

Suppose you have dyslexia, and it's pretty severe. Depending on your needs and preferences, at a learning center you can complete testing to make sure that's the issue, rather than an eye problem; get help with taking class notes; learn how to work with your professors to arrange for more time to take tests or turn in papers; train to use software that translates your spoken words into computerized text; learn how to adapt Word and other software to your needs; and work with tutors and peer readers to manage your workload.

From working with a few students last semester, I know that learning disabilities do not mean that a person is stupid -- far from it. A particular student mathematician comes to mind: he's a brilliant logician and understands the whole of the mathematics syllabus without a single problem. However, he cannot spell or write down a coherent sentence on his own. The challenges of academic English leave him anxious and frustrated. I can't say that working with the student peer readers and tutors in the Learning Center has solved all his problems, but the Center has helped, and he'll be back in school this fall, instead of quitting his studies way short of his potential to do good things for the world.

In talking about non-trads with the staff at the Learning Center, I found out that many older students just don't use the services very much, even though the cost of them is included in the tuition. If using a tool from the Learning Center, whether it's time management or a sophisticated software system, is the difference between an A and dropping out again, isn't it wiser to reach out for that tool?

While you're on campus, looking over the layout of the buildings or signing up for this fall's classes, stop by your school's Learning Center. It could unlock a lot of mysteries for you when school starts.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Never Too Late, No Matter Who Says What

I overheard someone say it again this past weekend: "I'm just too old to do that. It's way too late for me to try." Unless the man was talking about sky-diving or dating Paris Hilton, I can't agree. No matter what age we are, there is always time and energy to do important and meaningful work in this world. It's simply up to each of us to find it.

The really amazing thing I hear a lot from younger adults, in their 20s and 30s, is that they just don't think they can manage going back to school, even for an associate degree. From what I've seen over the past couple of years at St. Martin's University, the house, the job, the spouse, the sports team, even the kids, are all excuses that can be turned into assets with a little thought and planning.

Not everything will work out perfectly. Elsewhere in this blog i discuss some techniques for managing childcare logistics. Even with the best planning, though, everyone has childcare glitches that make stray days here and there really challenging. On the other hand, your child may get to meet your classmates. I particularly cherished getting to meet a little guy named Sawyer, who charmed an entire Women's Lit class with his patience and sunny smile.

Admissions deadlines are negotiable: check online, and then walk into the registrar's office and ask for help.

As for finances, have you asked? Check out scholarships, grants, and loans offered by your school, and go in and talk to the financial aid officer. You do not have to take out a bunch of loans to get through school; if you do the work and show you can excel at your studies, you can get grants and scholarships that will ease the way. Alternatively, you can continue to work and pay for each class as you go, taking one or two courses per session.

Or, you can get all the way to your 80th birthday, and wonder what you did with your spare time all the way back in the day as you get dressed for your shift as a greeter at Space-Mart because you were always too busy to get that degree.