More Studying May Be In Order

It’s been a quiet week in Lake George … Wait, no it hasn’t!

My final exam of the semester was on a Friday evening at 17:45 (that’s 5:45 PM for most people) for a class that was usually held on Monday and Wednesday evenings. This in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad, but we were expecting family to arrive at our house that evening for our annual Yuletide (Winter Solstice) celebration the next morning. Due to various conflicts, we were holding it on Saturday the 15th instead of closer to the actual solstice on the 21st. The upshot of this being that not only was I spending a good portion of my Friday night taking an exam, I was doing so while loved ones were supposed to be arriving in my home, some of them driving a considerable distance to do so. There were several students that didn’t bother to show up for the exam; presumably they either had sufficient grades they didn’t need to do so, or they arranged at alternative test time. Best of luck to them, I guess. I suspect the time and day of the exam had a lot to do with these absences!

Walking around campus afterwards was like walking through a ghost town! The place was utterly deserted and eerily quiet.

So here we are a few weeks later and of course I’ve received my grades and everything …

Well, at least I passed. My final grades for the two classes in my first semester were a C for Discrete Mathematics and a B for Computer Science II. This gives me a current degree GPA of 3.566 … which is a bit of a drop from the 4.000 with which I started. (It also leaves me with just under 100 hours more of credits required for my degree.) While these grades came as a bit of a shock when compared to the tech school where I was getting a 4.00 with every single class, I’m actually more proud of these grades because I felt like I actually had to work for them!

When I transfered into UWP I expected the classes to be harder. I wanted the classes to be more challenging as I felt like I wasn’t really getting full value from my highly-inflated tuition costs from that other school. I think it’s time to speak of that experience a bit. When I first started to pursue my degree, I was just turning 40 years old. Except for the occasional short class for some work-related functions, I had not been in an actual classroom for more than 20 years. My high school grades weren’t really great, particularly my senior year, and I had no recent history of academics to present as an example of my interests for potential admittance. I was desperate to do something, anything really, in order to make my situation better and I didn’t think I had a chance in hell at getting into a traditional college.  In other words, I was perfect prey for a certain type of school with low requirements and high-pressure sales.

Out of a desire to not incur any kind of lawsuit, I will not specify which one, but if you’re in the United States you’ve probably seen their commercials. They’re the ones which had an image of the VLA radio astronomy observatory with voice over about a railway communications system. They are usually identified with three letters and their former parent corporation was involved with telephones and telegraphs. Yes, that one, much to my chagrin.

I ignored that initial uneasy feeling for a very long time. I must make it clear that I cannot fault my teachers nor most of the administration staff at the campus which I attended. I think most of them really did have a desire to educate and help others, although I should have taken the hint at how many of them would refuse to directly discuss the negative publicity the school was receiving in the local and national press. (I’ll note that a few did make veiled references to the fact that the school has the highest tuition rate of any school in the industry, but would then change the subject, possibly after noting that it sure didn’t go to the teachers!) I cannot say that I learned nothing there, but the classes were amazingly easy and much of the learning came from my own love of the subjects and not from the required material. Again, the teachers were usually helpful with questions and my desire to go beyond the material — apparently students who were actually actively engaged being somewhat of a rarity there, but the official materials tended to be barely above the high school level at best.

After two years I couldn’t ignore the fact that I’d made a serious mistake in going there and I began to look into traditional schools. I really wish I had done so initially, although I don’t know if I could have gone straight into that without the first experience. As poor as their academic standards are, at least they did get me back into the habit of doing homework, taking tests, attending classes and other school activities that we as adults do sometimes blow off all too easily. (While loudly proclaiming these activities as important for our children, of course!) I think I’m now in a better position to appreciate that I will learn more from a class with harder material and more stringent project requirements: I want an actual education and not just a piece of paper!

It’s still been made clear to me that I’m going to need to make school a higher priority and juggle my work load from other sources around such to accomplish this. That’s certainly going to make it interesting for client projects! I’m looking into other funding sources, including setting up a donation page on gofundme. I’m also seeking a campus job with the thought that they’re far more likely to be understanding of “I need to study for an exam this week” than my clients! (Not to mention that it’ll seriously cut down on my commute time.)

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Now may be better than Then

Although going to college now presents many challenges to me, I’ll say that there are absolutely many advantages over going at an age when I traditionally would have gone. If I had entered college straight out of high school, it would have been in the fall of 1988 and most likely would have been a state college in North Carolina. Both of these bring up several issues on a personal level and some relating to my chosen field of study.

As I said in my introductory post, I am majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Web Design. The field of computers and programming has advanced so much in the last twenty-four years that it’s difficult to know where to even being with the changes. There were certainly programming classes back then and even personal computers, but they were pretty different than what’s offered now. My minor absolutely did not exist yet. The Internet did exist in 1988, but Tim Berners-Lee had yet to write his proposal for  HTTP and the first ‘webpage’ wouldn’t be around for another three years or so. The concept that businesses would one day not only actually pay people to code these things, but really wouldn’t even be taken seriously as a business if they didn’t have one, was as incomprehensible as a business routinely advertising by skywriting.

Speaking of things that (mostly) didn’t exist in 1988 …

After my first actual meeting with my UW student advisor, I was wondering around the student service area – taking care of financial arrangements, making sure I was properly registered, that sort of thing. There was a sign pointing to the different student service departments available and one of the listings was for the Student LGBTQ resource center. I happen to be bisexual, and I’m very comfortable with this fact, but I didn’t come out to more than a very few friends until I was 21 … which would have been about  my third year of college if I had gone in 1988. While I know there were some LGBTQ organizations in the NC area in the late 1980’s, mostly they were at private schools (Duke University being a noted example) and were certainly not officially endorsed by the school! Some histories of such organizations talk about how progress was when the school administration moved from a policy of unquestioningly expelling a student for being gay to “only” strongly suggesting counsellings and other cohesiveness to “correcting” their behavior.

OK, make no mistake, I’m going to school to further my education and to get my degree. Assuming I’m not being actively discriminated against, I don’t think I actually need such a center anymore than I need one for any of the many other subcategories which could be used to describe me. Unfortunately my orientation is one such category which has been used to discriminate against people … including myself. Having such an organization – and one recognized and actively condoned by the school – means a great deal to me. Also, although I didn’t exactly enjoy the discrimination I’ve encountered in my life, I’m glad that I can talk to my younger fellow students and tell them about how things really have changed for the better! (This doesn’t mean we should rest comfortably now, but that whole It Gets Better thing isn’t bullshit. It may take time, but it really does get better!)

I may have waited a long time to get started, but I really do think this was a better starting place; “Now” is better than then.

Why am I doing this?

Alternately: How the heck did I end up as a first time college student at my age?

As I write this, I’m 42 years old and I’ve been working towards my first college degree (Computer Science Major with a Minor in Web Development) for just over two years. This is my first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Although I am very happy to be there, it’s somewhat daunting to realize that I’m classified as a freshman and will be at this for at least four more years. I’ll expound upon those circumstances in another post, but for now I’d like to explain how I came to be going to college for the first time at my age.

I grew up in a fairly poor area in rural North Carolina. My parents separated when I was in my mid-teens, something that really should have happened about ten years earlier, and as my mother left the state as she feared for her life. Considering my father’s actions in the days after she left, her fears were certainly justified. The short version is this: he he kidnapped her (adult) nephew at gunpoint trying to make him reveal where she had gone. Subsequently, dad was sentenced to three months in state prison and pushed further along with slide towards the bottom. Needless to say, this left us a bit estranged.

Weirdly enough, I continued to go to school during all this. I had some supervision from other family members, but I spent a lot of time on own. Even at the time, I was very much aware as to how many of my fellow students would have just dropped out, but I’d already become determined that I wasn’t going to do that. I still got my lazy carcase out of bed every morning and went to school despite a lack of parental supervision. (Well, most mornings, at least … this being more than twenty-five years ago, I can’t swear that I didn’t stay home sometimes.) Oddly enough, my grades definitely slipped a bit right about then. Wow, go figure, huh?

After dad was released, I started spending less and less time in his home and more time at the houses of friends’ families or that of my girlfriends. The time line is a bit fuzzy now – I think at least partially because I don’t want to remember that period too clearly – but once Summer came around, I left one day and just never came back. At 17, I lived in my car for about a week or so, then moved in with my girlfriends family for most of the Summer. Towards the end of the Summer, my mom returned to the area and I moved in with her and her then boyfriend, but with far less of a parental relationship and much closer to the status of “house mates.” I was still free to come and go as I pleased and … well, it’s kind of amazing to me looking back on that life from so far away that I survived.

The upshot of all this is that by the time I was nearing my high school graduation, affording college was a virtual impossibility and just getting the hell out of North Carolina seemed like a huge bonus. Like many kids in similar situations, the military seemed like the solution. I served in the USAF and invested in the GI Bill, but once I was discharged, I had become so disillusioned with the military that I really didn’t want anything to do with anything connected to the service … so eventually I let my benefits expire unused. At the time, it didn’t seem that important anyway: I was working IT jobs and if not well off, at least I was pretty comfortable over all. Who needs college, right?

During that time I taught myself a lot of database concepts, mostly with MS Access. I did a lot of user interface designs with Access as a back end, data migration, data normalization, and other useful bits and pieces. I learned a smattering of other things through various jobs and project – some networking, some PBX administration, hardware maintenance, and even enough other general programming concepts to be useful, but I was still largely backing myself into a nice comfortable niche market centered around MS Access. For a while, things were pretty good, even after 9/11 and the aftermath started hurting the job markets. I can take some solace in the fact that I was one of the last consultants let go from my really cushy long-term, open-ended project, but in the end, I was still let go.

With an ever tightening job market, I was left with a history of a lot of experience in a fairly specialized subclass of an already specialized area. I had some experience in other areas, but very little with which to back it up and even in those areas, I didn’t have a great deal of depth. It took me a while, but I realized that I really did need that piece of paper to go along with that experience after all.

In June of 2010, I enrolled in a technical school¹. It was my 40th birthday present to myself. I’m still on the journey I started that day and it’s going to take me a while to complete it. It’s not been a smooth road and there have been more than a few times when I’ve started questioning whether or not this is worth it and if I really want to continue this process, but I’m determined not to back out of it. I’m glad to say I have family and friends encouraging me, even if it does mean that I must chose school work over being with them sometimes.

I am writing this blog both to tell my story and to remind myself that it is worth it and that I will not quit.

  1. Note that my current school is not a technical school; that’s a story for a different post!