On Being a Decade-Long College Student

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I never anticipated that I’d still be in college when I turned thirty-one.  My goal was to have my doctorate shored up by the time I was thirty-five.  Now, if I were to go that route I’d be closer to forty than thirty-five when I finished school barring some spectacular feat of grad school engineering.  Still, ten years as an undergrad?  Well, kinda.  I spent my early twenties as an undergrad at a college I loathed.  That didn’t last very long.  Then, shortly before I was sent to jail I enrolled in technical school.  It took me about three years to figure that out.  By the time I went back to school for my undergrad I was twenty-seven and when you go back with an Associate’s degree you’re basically given Junior status, so it should not have taken this long to get where I am.  However, I loved being an undergrad.  I really did.  Not for the social stuff or anything.  I loved learning about all these big concepts that had previously only appeared in book abstracts.

I enjoyed my professors (most of them) though two sent me up the wall.  I think because I was an older student they treated me a little differently than the typical undergrads.  I spoke with one of my many advisers once and he said that it seemed like I actually had my act together; something that couldn’t be said for the kids he advises in most circumstances.  It was at that point that I came to the realization that no, I wasn’t a kid anymore.  When you’re 18-22 you are still a kid.  You may have grown up responsibilities and choices, but that doesn’t make you an adult.  Being an adult means understanding the consequences.  Once you fully understand the consequences that’s when you become an adult.  I had to go through a lot of coming of age stuff before I was able to understand the consequences.  Much of that had to do with my Asperger’s.  A lot of it also had to do with being given too much responsibility too quickly, which always seemed to happen to me in work environments.

I looked at school as giving me a unique opportunity to test some previously abstract idea that I had.  I had a Civil War class that allowed me to look at Civil War causation theory.  I had a couple classes that I used to work on my bachelor’s thesis on Led Zeppelin.  I had creative writing classes that allowed me to work on Indian Summer – my book about my grandfather.  And I had a writing workshop class that I used to finish writing my TV series.  I wrote over one thousand pages for that class and completed thirteen one hour episodes, a series bible and a pitch bible.  I presented my work at a senior seminar and the reaction from the crowd was one of bewilderment.

“That seems like a lot of work,” was the common response I got.  It was one of the best presentations I got to give.

My goal had always been to go into education.  I wanted from a very young age to be a teacher.  Because of my previous felony conviction I can’t really do that at a normal school.  Many encouraged me to become a professor and I thought that I would be really good at that.  Now, I’m not so sure.  Why?  Because ten years of consecutive schooling takes a toll on you.  It was at the end of the spring semester of 2015 that I could feel myself running out of gas.  I completed my final in one class with just a forty-seven percent and though I enjoyed the comparisons that I could make to Mitt Romney with that percentage it was one of the lowest moments of my academic career.  I’ve come a long way don’t get me wrong, but this feels like the end.  When one of my advisers pointed out that I’d be the first in my family with an advanced degree I shrugged my shoulders.  I didn’t care then and I don’t care now.  Getting that advanced degree isn’t going to help me do what I want to do.  Getting my undergrad degree however filled me with a sense of purpose that underlines everything that I do.

Simon Sinek wrote a great book called: Start With Why.  If you read only one book on finding your purpose in life read that one.  If you see a podcast where he’s a guest download it.  If you want to watch an epic TED talk watch this guy.  His theory that everything boils down to your why is what currently keeps me going.  Every time I’m questioning what I’m doing I think back to my why.  Your why is your purpose.  My purpose is enlightenment.  The world does not know what I know and in order for the world to be the place I want it to be I must further humanity’s beliefs and understanding about art, creativity and what is possible when we shed labels and adopt ideas rather than status quo perceptions of how the world works.  What I’ve come to understand – and this is what took me the longest time to get – was that academia is just another institution.  Institutions are what bind us to expectations.  Expectations and greed are the root of all evil.  When I was a criminal I had expectations about the world that weren’t being met and I had the greedy desire to fulfill those expectations myself.  Understanding that you’re wrong is only part of the recovery process.  Understanding why you’re wrong is what will allow you to move on.

I heard the most disturbing thing when I was on the elevator going up to see my psychiatrist.  A nurse was explaining how her eight year old child came home in tears because she was unable to identify what she wanted to do with the rest of her life for a class assignment.  She was eight years old.  The idea that we know anything at eight years old is a ridiculous one.  The idea that we know now what we can only know in the future isn’t simply absurd it is completely unfair.  Yet these are the things that we’re doing to our kids.  We’re raising them to be the perfect workers for the most rigid corporations in the world.  Corporations are institutions.  Institutions bind us to expectations.  Have you ever been anxious or depressed in your life?  Chances are it’s from not meeting expectations.  Anxiety is the fear of the future, depression is fear of the past.  When we get depressed it’s because we feel that we cannot succeed in the future because of something that has happened in the past.  It is not enough to simply let go of the past.  Sometimes that’s not enough.  The reason that I had completely had it with school by the time I was eighteen was because everyone had been saying relentlessly since I was in second grade that I wasn’t meeting my potential.  Potential for what?  Seriously.  Potential for fucking what?

Life isn’t about realizing your potential because potential isn’t something that exists outside of a person’s mind who is shackled to an institution.  You would never say that an entrepreneur hasn’t met their potential because you have no idea what that potential is.  If you define someone as a clerk and you say that they haven’t fulfilled their potential to be a manager then you’re assigning that person a goal that they may not even want to achieve.  People told me I could be so good at school if I just put my mind to it.  Eventually after people stopped screaming at me about it for twelve years I worked my ass off so that I could fulfill that “potential.”  At the end of the day however, it all feels lost.  You see, I didn’t do any of it for me.  When I got out of jail I needed to do something to prove to myself that I wasn’t that person.  I wasn’t some average criminal.  I could do things in life.  So I succeeded at school, which was the only institution that wasn’t denying me entry because of my previous actions.  Not until my final semester however did I realize that I was fighting the same battles I was fighting in high school.  Everyone thought I could do “anything.”  Anything might as well be everything because the term is equally as vague.  If someone says you can do anything challenge them immediately.  Make them define what it is that you can do so that you have the understanding of what is expected of you.  Someone who tells you that you can do anything is lying to themselves and to you because no one can do anything.  That freedom simply doesn’t exist.  Even if we lived in a perfect world there would always be barriers to growth because without opposition there is no progress.

Imagine a book or movie without an antagonist.  Not very enjoyable, is it?  That’s because there is no one and nothing that is holding that person back.  Without opposition there is no progress.  You cannot overcome obstacles if they have all been removed.  This is why people who have been handed everything in life start doing drugs or drinking heavily.  They needed something to fight in their life.  If you do not have obstacles then you create your own.  The world cannot operate without obstacles.  So, here I am finishing my last semester of school.  I’m not all that happy about it, but I’ll do it anyway.  What’s next for has yet to be determined.  When I was fighting people’s expectations of me I thought I had it all figured out.  Now that I want to live my own life on my own terms I have no idea how I should proceed.  It’s the anything and everything syndrome.  When someone tells you that you can do anything then you have to sit in a state of paralysis as you analyze everything because everything is what constitutes your options.  A jack of all trades is a master of none and if there is one thing we should strive to be in this world it is a master of something.  Mastery is the purpose of a life that is well lived.

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4 thoughts on “On Being a Decade-Long College Student

  1. Pingback: On Being a Decade-Long College Student | Bee in the Bubble

  2. You make some interesting points. Specifically about our why. What is our
    purpose. I agree with you on a lot of what you have to say about life being like a revolving door of institutions . I just want to say that I don’t think you can generalise that his is’ why people who have been handed everything in life start doing drugs or drinking heavily. They needed something to fight in their life. If you do not have obstacles then you create your own’. I had al of handed to me and was very privileged but there was a lot of wrong and bad experiences that helped me feel drawn to drugs. I had enough drama in my life to add more drama with drug addiction. I don’t think that you can say that a privileged person with everything handed to them will use drugs to find something to fight f. I was privileged and I had perfectly plausible reasons to rebel against society in every context. I too have used education to help put me in a place where I feel proud of myself and in a place where people who said I could never achieve what I achieved with my history, my situation, my choices. I am looking forward to graduating with a BA (hons) Arts and the humanities degree that I sweated blood and tears for, in Nov 2015. These days I put goals in place to keep me stable and on the right road. I’m hitting all the milestones I never wanted to hit. Getting married,wanting to drive a car and move to another country on my terms. The old adage ‘you are never to old to learn’ is apt here and in the school of hard knocks
    .

  3. I walked a pretty similar path, and I appreciate your ideas of learning consequences being an aspect of transitioning into adulthood. I went to college straight out of high school, had my own issues, largely self-wrought, and it wasn’t until I returned to school at 29 that I suddenly seemed to ‘have my act together.’ I’m 36 now with a master’s, and 22 year old me would not believe it if he saw it. He would also most likely not appreciate what it took.

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