It took 20 years to finish college, and you can too

I’m 38 years old and this last December I finished my Bachelor’s degree in English from Arizona State University.

It’s not often that we get to take real time for self-reflection and journey back through our works from the past to see how far we’ve come. My collegiate career has been atypical than that of most who find themselves at the end of the journey reflecting on what they’ve learned. I started this journey as most do, when I was eighteen — but now, graduating from Arizona State University, after twenty years of work at the age of thirty-eight, I find that revisiting past work isn’t just seeing how far my education has come, but also how far I’ve come as a person.

I graduated high school in 1996 and had little aspirations of attending college. I was an IT guy at the height of the dot-com bubble and college just didn’t make a lot of sense. Reflexively, mostly on a whim, I enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College, signing up for English 1A: College Composition. I sat there on the first day surrounded by classmates from High School, and it felt more like Thirteenth Grade rather than my next step in education or life.Three weeks later I dropped out and focused on my career.

About a year or so after that I found myself living the college lifestyle in Davis, California. I went to the parties, the football games, hung out on the quad; I did everything one does in those years of personal exploration — except get an education. My friends were all students, but I wasn’t. When I sometimes run into someone from those days that they are inevitably surprised to learn I was never a student. “But you lived in the dorms!” They say. “IT security in the 90’s was pretty lax” I joke back. Meanwhile, I continued my career, working IT jobs, and progressing professionally step-by-step. I did, on two separate occasions enroll in community college, again dropping out both times within weeks — because in truth I didn’t see the point. I had all of the social benefits and felt like I didn’t need the educational ones. I was wrong.

After putting the time in, by 2003, I was well on my way in my career and my life. I was engaged to get married, getting promoted at work, and overall doing well — but in the quietest part of my soul something still bugged me about having tried and failed three previous times at college. I enrolled in English 300 — College Composition at Sacramento City College with the sole intent of simply passing the class that had beaten me thrice before. This time, however, I found that it was easy.

Really easy.

It seems that in the intervening times between attempts I’d grown up a little. I learned to think, to listen, to be enthralled by education. I was so encouraged I took another class. Then another. Then more. I discovered in myself a love of the process. I loved to learn, and what’s more is that I was pretty good at it. I discovered that the frustrations that plagued me during high school had fallen away and all that was left was a simple humility and openness to be more. I discovered that the benefits of schooling go well beyond the class materials, and touch every aspect of your life.

I continued taking classes — sometimes just one, sometimes four — whatever I could fit into my schedule. I never even considered a major or a degree. I simply kept going for this newfound love of learning.

Some years later my profession took me and my family to Canada. It was an incredible experience where I grew professionally and personally. I learned so much, but for those three years, even though I wasn’t taking any classes, school never left my mind. I even applied and was accepted (much to my surprise) to the University of Calgary, but didn’t attend over finances. Another career opportunity presented itself, and I took another major step forward, returning to the United States — specifically to Scottsdale, Arizona. Within the first three months, I researched the local community college and was excited to resume my studies and rediscover my love of education. Mostly on a whim, and with zero expectation, but encouraged by my UOC acceptance, I applied to Arizona State University and was accepted. Over the next five years, I took classes when I could. Sometimes on campus, mostly online — but kept just chipping away.

The collegiate journey for me has been one of persistence. It’s been one of tenacity and self-growth. It has been with me my entire adult life and now that it’s coming to an end in many ways I feel more sad than excited. It was hard to balance family, work, fatherhood, and personal time with classes and school — but I want more. I don’t know what’s next. I haven’t decided on that yet. For now though I’m planning on taking a deep breathe, maybe raise a glass to myself, and find a place on my wall for my new Bachelors Degree.

The greater lesson in this, the lesson I hope my children will one day understand, the lesson about myself that took nearly twenty years to learn, is simply to keep trying. It’s cliché for sure, but clichés are such that they are based on truths and persistence. If you want a degree, even if it takes you twenty years, keep trying. If you want a better career, to learn a new skill, to be more than you are now — keep trying. Leave complacency to the other person, put your effort on the table, and whether it takes a day or twenty years, keep trying. The effort itself is also a reward.

If you haven’t started yet, stop waiting for the right catalyst, the right moment, or the right motivation to come. If you want to be more, take any action, no matter how small, and start that journey. Waiting costs nothing, weighs nothing, and delivers nothing. The road may be long, but you’ll never know until you take the first step.

If you want to know where to start, reach out. I can’t walk to the Emerald City with you, but I can show you where to start on the Yellow Brick Road.

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