School’s Out Forever!

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“If you’re not building the future, you don’t believe there is a future.” – OITNB

I never planned for life after college. I loved being in school and spent a grand total of 30 years in the organizational silo that is the education system in this country. School was something I was good at; it was an escape from a shitty childhood that I honestly never thought I would survive. I never planned for life after college because I did not think I would live to see life after college.

After four degrees, I am officially done with school, and I have been enjoying my retirement these past few months working at a job I enjoy, and trying to figure out what to do with myself. I have not really had any distinct direction. This time has been perhaps the closest thing approximating a vacation I have ever experienced.

After what seemed like a lot of bureaucratic red tape and unnecessary aggravation, my diploma finally arrived today from my most recent and final degree. Not only do I feel a huge sense of relief, but I also have a sense of closure. I have never felt this sense of closure upon obtaining any of my other diplomas; that is partially how I know and am so sure that this is, in fact, the final degree. I have a sense of peace I have not had when completing any other degree.

While my formal education may be complete, I am now a student of the world and continue to learn from books, people, and experiences that surround me. I used my formal education to help me navigate the world of hard knocks and have lived to tell the tale. I quite literally have this great big world at my feet.

Everyone has been asking me about my plans. Thus far, I have had none. I have had ideas. I may teach. I do not feel like teaching right now. I enjoy my job and am enjoying the newfound freedom that I have now that I am not in school. I have joined both a book club and a writing club so that I am still engaged in intelligent conversation on a regular basis with people who are stimulating and authentic.

In addition to my vague notions of potentially teaching on the collegiate level sometime in the future, I also have dreams of travel. I have a passport that has never been stamped. I ran a marathon in Canada shortly after a passport was required for Canada, before the introduction of “enhanced driver’s licenses” for those residents in border states, yet Canada does not stamp the passport. I have a desire to see the world beyond my own country. We only get one life and it is very short. I want to make the most of it while I am here.

My dreams of travel have also been vague. I keep saying that I want to backpack through Europe. I do. It also seems unattainable to a small town girl who never thought to survive childhood and finish school.

I have decided to come up with a three-year plan and to choose a specific destination and start making plans for travel. I figure that if I can put my dreams down on paper and start crunching numbers, then I have a more concrete goal of the amount of money I need to save to fund my trip, as well as a destination, and an anticipated travel year.

I have chosen a three-year plan instead of a five-year plan because that is when I turn 40, and I want to do it big. I am starting to think of how I really want to retire in life in 30 or 40 years after I am done working and not just done being a college student. I am thinking of all the things that I want to see and do and trying to come up with a concrete way to make that happen. I am now planning for a future that I never thought I would have.

School may be done for me. I have finished all of my degrees. I will never stop learning. I love to learn and I know that travel will only help to broaden my horizons. While I look to and build the future, I am enjoying my present. I now have time to read all the books I wanted to read but did not have time to read when I was in school. I now have time to do all the things that I want to do and did not have time to do in school because I was always rushing from home to work to class and trying to fit in all my housework and other obligations between homework and paying bills.

School may be out forever, but I am now building a future. While I have a bunch of fancy degrees, perhaps the greatest thing I have learned in my 30 years of education is that I have a future and it is mine for the choosing. It seems like it took an awful lot of education to learn one simple thing, but I am grateful. I would not change a thing or want it any other way.

My Biggest Mistake

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I am quickly realizing, as people have been laughing at me the past few weeks that going to grad school is one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I would not recommend it. In fact, given what I have lived through the past five years to try to obtain a graduate education, I am honestly not sure why I even went to grad school.

The only reason I can pinpoint is fear. When I completed the bachelor degree after a 15-year struggle, I did not know what to do with myself. When most little kids respond that they want to be firefighters or ballerinas when they grow up, I was saying I wanted to be a college student. I never planned for or envisioned anything beyond college, so grad school was this mad scramble to try to delay the inevitable push into the real world for which, at 36, I am still not ready to face.

In the past few weeks, I have learned how vastly different grad school is from undergrad. If I had to do it over again, I would have stopped at the bachelor degree.

I have learned in grad school that A’s are handed out whether they are deserved or not. Apparently, when you reach this level of education, you are expected to be good, so they only hand out A’s. While I am sure most people are probably saying, “Take the A and shut up,” I am the type of person who likes to think that my grades are a direct reflection of my effort and mastery of a particular subject matter. It is not possible for everyone to be good at everything. In all of my prior degrees, I have had at least one class in which I had a B+. I am not a perfect person. Why does graduate education give the illusion of perfection? Masters degrees are awarded to people who have not necessarily mastered the subject matter and thus become meaningless.

Second, I worked a lot harder for my master’s degree than I worked in undergrad. To qualify: I overcame many more obstacles in my pursuit of graduate education than I did in the 15 years I spend in undergrad. Some recognition of my effort would be appreciated. Instead, I have found that graduate degrees do not even list your field of study, as you are forced to order transcripts that no employer requests or wants to see, you are not awarded any honors for academic achievements, and you are not given any sort of ceremony or rite of passage to acknowledge the fact that you have sacrificed more in the past 5 years than the entirety of 36 years on this planet to get the degree.

For being the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, grad school has been one huge let down. I would rather run all 14 marathons again back to back than live through grad school again.

Yes, I said it. Running a marathon is easier than grad school.

It’s possible that all of this is simply due to poor choice of academic institution and program, but I have inklings that this situation is pervasive across academia.

I honestly have no idea why I ever went to grad school.

As I stare down a finish line that I now may or may not cross (I seriously do not feel like Defending a thesis I would much rather forget), I realize that the best thing to do at this point is to cut my losses and move forward.

There is no point in analyzing the why or the “what if.” We cannot go back and change the past. There comes a time when you must declare something as a learning experience and move forward because there is nothing you can do other than try to survive the moment in which you now find yourself.

So yes, I do find grad school to be the biggest mistake of my life. If I had to go back and do it again, I never would have went to grad school. However, there is no point in ruminating on the biggest mistake I have ever made and feeling regret. Negative feelings will do nothing to ameliorate the situation I am now facing. Sometimes the best course of action is to cut your losses and move forward.

What I am most looking forward to is reclaiming my life. I am looking forward to rewinding real slow from 5 years of mindless, unnecessary stress that I have just lived through. I am hoping that there will again come a point in my life sometime in the future where I enjoy learning again. I enjoyed school for the first 25 years of my life. These last 5 years, I have seriously been questioning the purpose of formal education.

Life is not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes we need to make mistakes to realize what is truly important in life. Grad school has been one huge, expensive colossal waste of my time, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and to have the ability to always move forward.

The Graduation Speech I Never Gave #TBT

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#TBT to my first degree when I was valedictorian but did not attend graduation. I have been in the top 10 for all of my degrees, but my attendance at graduations has been sporadic, contingent on many factors in my life at that time. This is the speech I had prepared to give well over a decade ago when I completed my first degree. For that degree, there actually was no ceremony, as I graduated in the “off” (fall) semester, so there was nothing to attend. Note that the above photo is from a degree that did have a graduation ceremony.

Speech

There are so many people to thank, that I could be here all day. There are so many inspirational people and speeches that I would love to emulate. Some of my favorite graduation moments, speeches, and phrases come from movies such as Reality Bites and Say Anything. I would love to say something epic that will inspire you to go out and do great things, challenge the status quo, and change the world.

But when it comes down to it, it really does not matter what I say as I stand here before you today. You will not remember any of it. Twenty years from now, you will not remember the speeches, you will not remember what you wore, nor will you remember the unease you now feel as your sock is slipping down into your shoe. What you will remember are the feelings and the people who are here with you today celebrating and sharing this most amazingly precious moment with you.

So, I will say this: people are what are most important in life. This is what we need to remember. Graduation is a great accomplishment. We have sacrificed ourselves, our time, and our future earnings in pursuit of education. Never forget the people who have supported you through this time and who are here with you today. It doesn’t matter how much money you earn, if you get that snazzy corner office, or if you end up waiting tables and riding a bicycle, what matters most are the people in your life. Your legacy will be the ways in which you are able to make life better, even if that person you better is simply yourself.

When you leave here today, be sure to hug your children, your spouse, your parents if they are still alive, and even your grandparents if they are around too. For while graduation is a huge accomplishment, it is only a flicker compared to the flame of love that is the people in your life.

We have all sacrificed something in order to achieve this accomplishment today. Remember to be thankful for every thing in life. We should not be thankful just on the day in November when the calendar tells us to be thankful. Be thankful every day. Congratulations on your achievement and go forth and spread love into the world.

End Speech

I am currently in the home stretch of my final degree with less than two weeks to go. While I oscillate between relief and excitement to anxiety and despair, there is a part of me that knows that these are the days I am going to miss. They say that college is the best four years of your life. It has been the best twenty years of mine. As I look to the future, I am scared. I have been in some sort of educational institution for over 30 years of my life. Some people have been institutionalized by the mental health system, some people have been institutionalized by the criminal justice system, and I have been institutionalized by the education system.

I am sure that at some point I will have panic over the fact that my academic career is over. What is perhaps most difficult is the fact that it is over whether I like it or not. Even if I do decide that I want to return to school in the future to complete a PhD, I am unable to do so because I have officially maxed my federal student loans. Unless some institution decides to give me a full academic scholarship, I am unable to continue with any more education. I am not sure what is scarier – the fact that I cannot receive any more education, or the fact that I have officially reached the ceiling for student loan debt.

I have been half joking and half serious lately that I do not want a graduation party. I want a retirement party. Twenty years in any field is a career. My career as a professional college student is ending. I am not simply graduating; I am retiring from being a professional college student. I will never stop learning, but I will now be learning by less formal means.

I am looking forward to retirement. I have employment I love, and the most amazing people in my life. I am looking forward to running more marathons, and surfing more waves. My library card will be getting a great workout. I think I may even be getting a fishing license for 2016. I will finally have time to devote to the people and things in my life that are as equally or more important than education, which have traditionally taken a back burner role to school.

A few months ago, when I posted about the penultimate paper (the last but one paper), I had foretold that this major life change would be a challenging time for me but that I hoped to be able to face it with grace. I’m not quite sure you would call this last month or so grace; it’s more like the break dance you inadvertently perform on a slick floor trying not to fall down. Whatever is happening, my life is about to change in major ways.

I’m looking forward to being able to Rewind Real Slow.

Digital Sabbatical

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An update on my pulling the plug post, as one of the intentions of this blog is to hold myself accountable to my goals; I have not done well with pulling the plug on technology and making my interactions more meaningful. I was successful for awhile, but then discovered that I was not getting the type of engagement in real life that my brain required, and I tend to get more attention online than I do in real life.

The past two months have been a learning experience in how I interact with the world and have forced me to take a step back and evaluate my relationships more critically. The benefit to having an online presence is that it results in more interactions than in real life. By the same token, the detriment is that constantly being plugged in results in increased levels of anxiety and decreased ability to focus on the task at hand.

I took a digital sabbatical this weekend to unwind after a particularly challenging week of all things grad school on top of my normal day-to-day responsibilities. While my phone has been off and I have not been on social media, I have used an Ethernet cord to plug into the internet when I have needed to do something grad school related. Yes, I know the purpose was to unwind, but I am nearing the end here, and need to seriously get some work done.

What I have discovered these past few days is that the people who matter most in my life are already with me – my cats. Other than that, people so rarely contact me that I am sure no one is having meltdown over the fact that I have been unreachable the past few days.

I have discovered that I do, in fact, have a healthy relationship to the internet when I must access it old school via Ethernet cable. I only plugged in when I absolutely needed something this weekend, and not for more than 20-30 minutes per day. My downfall with internet and social media comes from my smart phone. That little square glowing diabolical hand held device that allows instant access to the internet at all times and from all locations.

With my phone off these past few days, I have gotten more accomplished on grad school, I have spent more quality time with my cats (those who are most important), and have even managed to read a novel for leisure that is completely unrelated to any of my degree programs.

I had a real-life in-person discussion a few weeks ago with someone whom I greatly admire about my desire to completely shut off my internet after grad school. That person persuaded me not to, arguing that internet is now a utility much like electricity or gas service, and that the internet provides me with a way to communicate. This is true. So while I will not be getting rid of internet service completely, my goal instead is to put better boundaries around its use.

Saved by the Ethernet cord is how I am going to accomplish this goal. Given that I do not have self-restraint with my so-called smart phone – once I am on the internet for one thing, I am looking at all the things – I will be turning my phone off more and plugging in my Ethernet instead.

I am quite sure that if it was not for the fact that I needed email for things grad school related that I probably would have only been online once in the past 4 days – and that would have been to double check the ingredients for a recipe about which I was doubtful.

I have not missed the status updates, the rants, the raves, or the photos. I more thoroughly enjoyed all my activities this weekend because I was fully present. I enjoyed the sunset. I enjoyed the beach. I enjoyed music. I have had the opportunity to plan my cross training schedule for when I am fully recovered from my running injury.

I am coming up on my last few weeks of grad school before my final defense. I may take a sabbatical every weekend I have off. Really, the only time I need my phone is if work needs to find me or I have to email for things grad school related. My stress levels have been a lot lower the past few days. I am looking forward to returning to work tomorrow energized and focused without the distraction of grad school panic and everything else that overwhelms when you are trying to finish a degree and do 10 million things.

Have you taken a digital sabbatical? Has it been relaxing for you? Have you noticed less anxiety when you turn the smart phone off?

If you are not on social media, how do you improve your in-person interactions? My problem is that I tend to get more interaction with people online than I do in real-life (even though the people I know online I also know in real life). With everyone so busy these days, how do you find or make time to spend with those important to you?

#TBT #Occupy

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By request, this month’s TBT post tells about the three months I spent with the Occupy movement in five different American cities.

“It ain’t a middle finger on a t-shirt, the establishment’s tryin’ to sell.

It’s a guy with the balls who told the establishment to go to hell.” – Eric Church

Slam Poetry Intro:

If a movement were to embody the battle cry of the disenfranchised, overworked, and generally shit-on Generation X, it would be #Occupy. We are the first generation in the history of this country to be worse off than our parents. Saddled with ever growing mounds of student loan debt that we were encouraged to incur in the futile pursuit of the American Dream, we are slaves not only to our debt, but to the boomers, our parents, as they age and look to us to care for them. At the same time, we struggle to provide for our own children and have the lowest rates of home ownership of any generation.

We grew up in the 80s, the era of Reagan and trickle down economics. Let me tell you that from the view of the 99%, the only trickle down that has worked have been the piss and filth in which we squander as the result of the establishment choking us to the point of death and then continuing to squeeze. It makes Urinetown look not like a musical, but rather like a pristine, and sterile hospital. We were raised in the age of excess, where more equaled prestige, and when it came our turn to take the reins, encountered a Second Depression that the right likes to write off as “recession.”

We break our backs under the lie of meritocracy. If good deeds equaled rewards, then why are we on our knees, as we beg for rights like healthcare, housing, and employment? We are the generation that fought your war on terror, and yet our veterans come home to shambles worse home than abroad. As a country, we neglect those who have fought to protect our freedoms, often in a war that they did not support or understand.

In all five American cities in which I occupied, encampments held relatively the same type of folk. Generation X. The students, the veterans, the homeless, the gay, the everyday people whose blood, sweat and tears keep this country moving every day.

End Slam Poetry Intro

One of the things that amazed me the most about the time I spent with Occupy was how human we all were in our connectedness to the issues and the situation. There were people in Philly, Boston, New York, and the two other cities in which I occupied that were of all ages, colors, and religions, and were able to create a harmonious and unified community, the type of which some cities dream to create. For the most part peaceful (yes, I understand some cities had violence), it was an opportunity not only to try to have our voices heard, but to come together and share the common experiences we all had.

One of the most important things I learned from my time with the Occupy movement is that the notion of meritocracy in this country truly is dead. I have often wondered both in my personal life and as a social worker, how it is possible for people to make “good choices”: for people to be working and live in small apartments with practically no luxuries, such as no cable, no cell phone, and sometimes no vehicle, and yet still struggle to put food on the table. The problem is not that we are not working hard enough or making poor choices. The problem is that our time is not valued and wages have stagnated in comparison to inflation.

Combine the death of meritocracy with the growth of the upper class, and now there is this entire swarm of people who made up Occupy. One of the things I feel like I brought to the table in my interactions with my fellow occupiers was the realization that in some European countries, such as France, where things are very different: France has universal healthcare, ample vacation time, ample pay, and other amenities than American lack – is that in France, the government is afraid of the people. In America, the people are afraid of the government.

This is an important distinction to consider. The power of the occupy movement was in realizing that we are the 99%. While the 1% holds the power in the form of an oligarchy, we are in fact more numerous and potentially have the ability to take some of that power back. The hard part is organization.

Once the camps disbanded, we all returned to our lives. We are still slaves to our jobs, taking care of both parents and kids, and living in tiny apartments because we can’t afford houses. We can’t afford healthcare. We can’t afford vacations. We see what “normal” lives are on the media and drown ourselves even further by going into debt trying to achieve what the 1% has gotten by pushing us down.

Part of my journey into minimalism is to further embody the occupy movement in my own life by saying no more. I will not be a slave to 65-hour workweeks. I will live within my means. If I have a pair of $7 jeans from Goodwill that fit and are decent, I do not need to go out and buy a $60 pair of jeans from designer store. Who am I trying to impress? People will either like me as is or bug off. I refuse to buy into the lie that the 1% is selling.

I am fully aware that I have lived through this country’s Second Great Depression in what was supposed to be the highlight years of my life. I am fully aware that I will never be able to afford to purchase a home, or have children. At this point, I have finally realized that no matter if you work hard and make good choices, that the system is stacked against us, and that it is a system that has been decades in the making.

It is perhaps times like this, when I feel closest to people who were from my grandparents’ time the people who lived through the first Great Depression. They were able to survive hard times and yet still maintain their dignity and their happiness. My time with the occupy movement has taught me the same. I may not be able to enact widespread change of the clusterfuck around me, but I can work to enact positive change in my own life. I can strive for happiness.

Yes, I am buried in student loans that I will never be able to repay, and I do realize that education was my “choice” (but really, what jobs can you get without one?); I am not paid a salary commensurate with my educational level, but I make a living wage. I may be on a shoestring, but I make ends meet. I have people in my life that love me, and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

For the record, I would have to say that of five cities, Philly was my favorite camp in which I occupied. In Philly, there was a sense of community. People were respectful and helpful with advice, warmth, and coffee, anything that you needed. The people I met and spent time with in the occupy camps would literally give you the shirt off their back if you needed one. That is what life is all about. Life is about people, not things.

While occupy is a political movement, and holds deeply political meanings for me, the most important aspect of my experience was very human. It’s about knowing that you are not alone in this world, that someone else shares your experience, and that you are loved.

My name is Rachel Anderson, and I am the 99%.