Reflections on Full-time Return to College
I’ve been in the radiologic technology course of study for several months now. Nearing the end of this semester of school, I feel qualified to comment on what it feels like to return to academia after a long and, honestly, welcome foray in the real world.
First, some perspective: I started school in 1983 as a kindergartener and graduated in 1996 from the same school all the way through. Having taken some pre-requisite courses at the local community college in an effort to get a leg up, I went directly to Mississippi State University in pursuit of a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. I presumed that I’d breeze through it like I had high school, emerge with a high GPA and job offers being thrown at me complete with all imaginable benefits and fantastic wages. After six greatly irritating and discouraging years of struggle through coursework and cooperative work education (the bright spot in the experience), I graduated in 2002, ready to enter the workforce and take the bull by the horns. I had already begun working on a regular basis with my weekly radio program, the fifth year anniversary of which I celebrated the first week of September this year.
When my daddy died earlier in my graduation year, I realized that moving away was a proposition that held no appeal to me. The organization I worked for as a co-op student, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Project was an absolutely phenomenal place to work, and remains my ultimate work experience and represents the most satisfied period of my life), probably would have hired me and put me to work in relatively nearby Mobile straight out of school, but I felt compelled to stay near my family. But I wasn’t worried…finding a local job, in the untempered opinion of a new graduate, would be a snap…who wouldn’t want me, with my education and local ties?
It turned out that no company or firm wanted any part of a new graduate, preferring a professional with at least 5 and preferably 10 years of on-the-job know-how. This was devastating…what was all that freaking school for, anyway? As it turns out, it’s only good for a foot in the door. All that talk I heard about $55k straight out of school was a lie. More jobs than people to fill them was a lie. Being educated to the point that you can figure out and do anything you set your mind to was a lie. All this was learned the hard way.
After doing odd jobs like installing computer networks on the fly and substitute teaching junior high English literature for half a semester at my alma mater, as well as starting to take additional course work at a local university, I finally landed a job at the local naval air station scanning drawings for a set period. Once they realized I was capable of doing actual engineering work and was better with a computer than the whole department combined, my contract was extended every couple months for another couple months. Job security was non-existent. Pay was better than any I’d had previously, but it wasn’t what I’d been told by college recruiters was engineer level…big shock, there.
The job begun to be less one of a simple data entry clerk scanning mylar engineering drawings into a scanner and more an entry level civil engineer, which was reflected in that my earnings were somewhere in between the two. But, two years into the work, I was relocated from public works to the office in charge of construction. Turns out there was a car wash they wanted to build, and it was decided to use the funds allocated to my contract to pay for it. Since money was forthcoming to pay for new work due to hurricane Katrina and some of the construction inspectors were relocated to Pensacola, I become an ad hoc building inspector. This job lasted six months before I was told I would be losing my job at the end of the week. Thanks for the forewarning, guys.
So I went for some time living on my savings and looking for other work, which was more difficult to come by than it was three years previous. I wound up working at a flower bulb factory for $8 an hour to make ends meet, which made it painfully obvious that a career change would be necessary. This was a colossal blow to me in several ways. First was the blow to my pride…after getting what I saw was a prestigious degree, here I was starting over like a high school kid just out of his cap and gown. But more hurtful was the realization that my life up to this point has largely been a waste. And the insult to injury was the fact that I’d have trouble paying for it.
So last year I returned to school part-time to take a year’s worth of pre-requisite courses…two semesters of anatomy & physiology classes. Yeah, one per semester. I was blessed, however, to find part-time work at a new bookstore belonging to a Christian chain where I could work while I schooled. The money wasn’t/isn’t great, but it’s kept me afloat. This semester I applied to the local community college for the reputedly strenuous radiologic technology program, where I was accepted as one in fifteen. And I’ve come to realize some things in the course of this year that have been interesting.
First, I found that I don’t hate school. As it turns out, what I do is really, really hate school. I hate studying, I hate going to class, I hate getting graded. Second, I learned that I’m apparently better at it than I was before. Whether that’s because I’m somehow more seasoned or focused, I don’t know, because I see myself as neither. Maybe it’s easier material for me, since the learning is more by rote than it was before, where one has to wrap their mind around a concept like a speeding car around a telephone pole, with similar results. Third, clinical work is something I’m not certain I like, given that I’m thrown into a work environment with little idea to start with how to go about it. Fourth, I see how college students really are…most aren’t ready for prime-time. No study skills, little determination to succeed, an apparent inability to deal with difficulty, and an unwillingness to get real help for it. The funny thing about it is, I realize that I was just like that when I was in the same place.
I don’t like being in school again, but it’s an interesting experience this go-around. I’ll have to remember to comment on this further in the future.