Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reconnect Part IV: A Student Again

After 14 years, I'm officially a college student again.  The path to reconnecting all these years later was circuitous and more challenging than I anticipated, but that's par for the course with things decided on a whim.

A few weeks ago I was at a job interview where I really thought my experience and networking would finally pay off. Everything was set up for me to be the right candidate. I knew how to talk the talk. I dropped the right names. I sounded the right rhetorical notes, but what I didn't do was tell them I had a college degree, "Bachelor's required, Master's preferred." What I told them instead was "no, I didn't get it," which is what I always say. I had some pre-made spin in the back of my head about competitive cost of labor and my experience putting me ahead of many with degrees, but I could sense the air had been sucked out of the room. The lead interviewer's tone changed from "nice to meet you" to "I can't believe you wasted my time" and out the door I went with a tepid goodbye and an obviously forced handshake.

I've been on the other side of those interviews. I've interviewed people and had them say something that turned everything on its head just when everything was going so well and you thought you'd found The One. In one case, a gentleman decided to confide in me that he was a recovering alcoholic. In another, a promising young lady got stuck on a question and just fell completely silent for about two solid minutes. In my case, it's been the degree. People are usually incredulous. I even had one prospective employer flat out tell me I'd be absolutely perfect for the position, but having no degree meant she'd never get it past HR.

While I marvel at these runaway human resources departments, I understand they do what they do to protect their organizations, many of whom have contractual stipulations and pre-set pay grades that would be thrown off kilter by hiring someone with lesser official qualifications to do a critical job. But my capitulation to this reality ultimately had nothing to do with my choice to return to school.

For me it was about respect.

I'm certainly no genius, but I do come from at least a marginally decent academic pedigree. My parents have a master's and a doctorate respectively. I was an honor student in my early years of high school and an AP student later on. I went to a liberal arts college of decent repute (albeit for a short period of time). I've been around the country and around the world. I've been in both the trenches and the ivory towers (such as they are) of non-profit social services for the past eight years. I've even had my writings published in a few places and received an award or two in my day. Despite all this, to the general intellectual public, I'm a nobody. You can't see the movie if you didn't buy a ticket and all my attempts to sneak in the emergency exit have met with failure. I want to have more conversations about the role of technology in modern youth development or the implications of globalization on American economic supremacy, but instead I end up in conversations about the relative literary merits of 50 Shades of Grey (there are none).

I'm now at an age where insecurity has dissipated in the harsh light of wanting to just be myself. I'm a snob and proud of it. There's no one who knows me who wouldn't agree with this characterization so I'm owning it. I'm also a realist. I want a place at the table to discuss the things that matter to me as an equal, not as some kid you pat on the head because he had a cute thought.

These were the things that ran through my mind when I raced to fill out my financial aid and CUNY applications. The process was surprisingly easy and it seemed like I was going to get in without much of a struggle. That didn't turn out to be the case.

In order to get into CUNY, one has to either pass a placement test or meet some other criteria such as having an SAT verbal score of 480 or higher, an ACT score of 20 or higher or a 75 or better on their NY State English Regents. I figured this was no problem since my SAT scores were well above the threshold and I'd also scored very well on the AP exam (which we took in lieu of the Regents). I contacted my high school and asked for my transcript to be sent and they offered to send my SAT scores and immunization records as well, which they assured me they still had despite their age. As it turned out, they had neither, but I wouldn't find this out for two weeks and ended up having to fork over $72 to the College Board to get them to open some vault in casa del carajo to find my SAT scores. In the absence of my immunization records, I had to get what was called a Titer Test to make sure I didn't become ground zero for some kind of measles pandemic, which cost me more time and money. I should also mention that while the CUNY placement test does exempt for a 75 or better on the Regents, it does not exempt for the considerably more difficult and college credit granting AP (even if you got a 5), which has to be about the dumbest, most non-sensical policy in the history of college admissions.

It was my work as an advocate for disconnected young people that made it possible. So many times over the years, I'd heard about their travails trying to get a job or into school or into some program. Typically, when one thing goes wrong, it's enough to get us to give up or become incredibly discouraged. We go into most situations with the suspicion that things are going to fall apart at any moment and when they do even a little bit, it reinforces this cognitive bias. I went in acting as my own advocate and every "no" or "well, we have a problem" was a solution waiting to happen. I pestered the folks at CUNY and my high school relentlessly with a phone call or an email at least twice a day because I was not going to let the opportunity slip through my fingers. When systems break down, desire can make the difference.

So I made it, literally at the buzzer on the last possible day I could have been formally accepted to start for the fall semester. It's going to be a struggle since the school is an hour and change subway ride from my apartment and the times of my classes will mold some future work schedule in ways I can't yet fathom, but what matters is that I'm a student again. I'm eager to see what this second round in college as an adult is like and looking forward to continuing on my path to reconnection.

But the most important thing is that I'm

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