Fifteen years ago, I was having a difficult time finding work other than sales or customer service jobs. I had been successful in sales and recruiting for a decade with a home party company, but I wanted something different. I was not quite sure what it was I wanted.
I applied for many types of jobs over the next three years. Each of them asked for skills in the same areas: Interpersonal, oral and written communication, leadership, administrative, and having an ability to meet deadlines. I had all those qualities and more. What I did not have was a college degree.
Even though I had a few college credits from back in the early 1970s, I applied for jobs asking for a college degree. I was gutsy enough to apply to a few where one of the requirements was “Bachelors degree required; Masters preferred.”
Many times I was called for an interview. Several times I was called back for a second chance. Rarely was I called for a third interview.
Not a good fit
With one company, I was called back for five interviews before they made the decision I was “not the best fit” of the final two candidates. The position was a placement specialist with an employment company, in which I would have recruited, interviewed, and placed temporary and temp-to-hire candidates in administrative office jobs, as well as building business relationships with employers in the city.
While working as a “temp” in the office, I learned several months later that Mr. Best Fit was using his position and access to information to meet and date women. He was later accused of promising the better temp jobs to those who would have sex with him, and was ultimately fired.
The reason that the company hired him over me was because I did not have a college degree. I certainly did not need a college degree to be smart enough to know what was right and wrong.
Facing my fears
I struggled with the idea that I needed a college degree for many of the jobs I wanted and where I knew I would excel or make a difference. At times, I became rather angry with the process, especially since so many thought I was a college graduate. (It was not on my resume, nor was I the one who brought up the subject in the interview.)
Even though I graduated high school at the age of 16, I did not feel that I was smart enough to finish a college degree. In both instances, I was going through pretty rough times in life, so I did not feel that I held much value at all.
At the age of 40, I was facing many of life’s challenges again, all at once, and did not have a clue who I was or what I wanted. I shut down and plummeted into one of the darkest periods of my life.
Thankfully, I was seeing a counselor who challenged me. When I told him that I did not want to school because I would fail, he simply said, “I know that is your belief system, but let’s do an experiment. Enroll in a couple of classes and see what happens.”
I would also throw out a lot of “what ifs”…what if I take a class and it is not what I like? What if I start on one path and decide it is not the right one for me? What if I cannot do the work? What if I waste my time on subjects that don’t matter? What if I fail?
His simple response: “Action defines clarity.”
In the fall of 1998, I enrolled in a local community college. I took several classes where I felt comfortable with the subject matter, attempting to ensure my success.
I took Speech 101, because I thought it would be “an easy A” for me and would give me time to concentrate on the other classes requiring more thought.
Instead, the instructor and I did not get along. What was a breeze academically became a storm interpersonally. Dr. Hard (yes, her real name) was one of the steeliest persons I have ever met. I was criticized unmercifully in front of fellow students, who noticed that she had singled me out. I was lucky to get a B+ in the class.
Throughout the two years at the community college, I whittled away at what the requirements were for an Associate of Arts and Science (AAS) in General Studies for transfer. Many of the classes were difficult for me, not having solid study skills, and certainly not having the self-esteem to believe I could get through the mathematics and science classes.
I procrastinated until the last few quarters before signing up for the subject requirements that I believed would be the bane of my existence. Though they were difficult classes, the two lowest grades I received in two years were a 2.2 for College Algebra, and a 2.3 in Meteorological Studies, both of which I worked very diligently to achieve. It was a victory for me.
I finished my first two years making the Dean’s List for all the quarters except that last, and graduated as a member of Phi Theta Kappa with my AAS. No more could I say that I would definitely fail.
My next concern was whether or not I could go to a university and make it. “Action defines clarity,” I would hear again.
In September 2000, I transferred to Pacific Lutheran University (PLU), a small private school in Tacoma, Washington. I decided to live in a dormitory, along with other coeds. I was 45-years-old.
I began as a junior at PLU with some of the same fears I had faced two years earlier. I was still unclear what direction I was going to take. I declared myself an Education major, but it was clear to me in the first semester that K-12 Education was not where I belonged.
In the winter/spring session, I had transferred from the Education to the Communication department, continuing with Education only to complete a minor degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. Taking classes in Persuasion, Argumentation, Conflict Communication, Group Communication, Intercultural Communication, and others is what excited me. I knew that these were the classes where I could think about the things that were important to me. I still was not sure where it would all lead.
And still, I heard, “Action defines clarity.”
There were bumpy roads in those two years. As I was challenging my internal thought processes, I was also speaking out, not always in accordance with what was popular. Some would welcome it; others would try to silence me as I challenged their beliefs. One professor made Dr. Hard look like Mary Poppins.
There were also some wonderful friendships made, often times with professors because of our closeness in age. There were others who welcomed intelligent discourse from someone having lived life, even if our prospective views were polar opposites.
I also learned that I did not need to be perfect. Many liked me because of the person I am…in all my quirkiness and my willingness to take on the tough topics, or my desire to advocate for those who were unable to do so.
I finished my two years at PLU by making mistakes, collaborating, procrastinating, discussing, arguing, and all the other many things that a typical university student does. I was certainly not the best student, nor was I the brightest. I “walked” with cap and gown in the Commencement ceremony in June 2002.
Unbeknownst to most, I had one paper that I had not yet finished, and had received an Incomplete. Though I had an opportunity to finish it and submit it late, I felt like a fake, a cheat, and a liar. It was just one more thing over which I could beat myself. I continued to keep the internal “failure” belief alive by putting the paper off until my professor finally tracked me down a couple of weeks before the grade would become an “F.”
Living past the embarrassment of what I had done, I enlisted some help in getting research materials together, and I wrote my final paper. It was not the kind of paper that I was proud to write, and that was reflective in the “C” grade I received, the only “C” I received since my mathematics class.
In December 2002, at the age of 47, I received my Bachelor degree in Communication with a Critical Communication Studies emphasis, with a minor in Teaching English as a Second Language. It was 30 years after I had graduated from high school.
No closer to being an expert
Getting my degree did not make me an expert in any field. It did not make me more intelligent than others may credit me to be. I did not win any prizes or graduate with special honors.
For me, going back to school was a lesson in life. It was a way for me to learn how to approach my fears and “do it anyway.” It was a way for me to challenge old beliefs I learned long ago and redefine the path I choose to take in life.
I still question what my next step may be or what path I should take. Part of that is simply my ruminating nature. What I do know is that taking any step forward will help to build momentum, and start moving me toward new adventures.
And what if I find out I am headed in the wrong direction? What if I fail?
All I need to remember are these three simple words: “Action defines clarity.”