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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Third Degree

It has been some months now since I set out on this latest voyage and now I have a few minutes to share this experience.

Returning to school is always a daunting prospect, no matter who you are or where you are in your life. I have taken on that challenge several times and each time is different.

The first time I went back to school after a hiatus of several years was to pursue a second degree in Kinesiology at Dalhousie University. I decided, after two years slogging away at the same job I had done while finishing my first degree; that I needed more education to get out of the dead end work life that a Bachelor of Arts provided.

I entered Kinesiology as a practical approach to a life that I intended to live in Nova Scotia. It was a program that promised a career and stable work. Some parts of the program I liked, some I didn't. But the few years between myself and most of my classmates seemed like a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon. I was not going to break into that social group-- I was ahead of them in my life; had a partner I expected to spend the rest of my life with and was in the program to get the job that would sustain a family.

As they say, best laid plans; they certainly do go awry. Relationship failed and I decided to move away from what was practical ie: Kinesiology and move on to another adventure—in a land far far away.

After three years of speaking in truncated English and living a reckless life in South East Asia I found something to right my floundering ship; a Master's program in Bangkok. I jumped at the chance to go to school and put some meaning back into my life.

My Masters program was exactly what I expected it to be-- a small group of people with a common interest. We were a real mishmash of people; different ages and stages in life, different countries of origin with different academic backgrounds.

At first I was very nervous about being back at school. My years teaching “It is a cat” to three-year-old kids had affected my ability to communicate in a rich and meaningful way. I felt that my mind had atrophied and had my doubts about my ability to write cogently on any subject let alone at a high academic level.

When I handed in my first paper, on Thai art, I was a wreck. It did not make matters any better that the Professor disappeared for three weeks and failed to return the marked papers for a month. After that first A, I got my confidence back and went on to finish course after course and write a fairly interesting thesis; if I do say so myself.

After I had left Dalhousie my academic confidence was shaken, not that I could not handle the work ( I was on the Dean's list) but whether or not I had the staying power to complete what I started. With my Master's degree in hand I fought back that uncertainty. And then I had a family.

I know I am happiest when I am learning something. And yes you can learn things without being in school but I need the force of deadlines and the guidance of professors to lead me to new things. Whenever I am not in school I feel something is missing in my life.

For years I have looked at a Masters in Adult Education that was available at a nearby university. As a single mother with two young kids I could not see any other way to get my educational fix-- the thing I needed to feel most content in my life. I got the application papers several times, had a meeting with the program chair and tried to read the relevant academic journals. I just could not make the project seem interesting despite it being the most obvious choice for me.

I had been working in adult education for more than a decade; a job I just fell into during my years in Asia and which I was lucky enough to continue doing when I returned to North America. But I have my own ways of teaching, tried and true techniques-- I was not looking forward to studying pedagogy and theory about things I had already conquered in the classroom. Not that I am a perfect teacher but I am set in my ways and have read too many ideas about teaching that I completely disagree with to want to pay to read such theories and then write papers and exams about them.

The other disincentive for doing the MA in Adult Education was that I already had the jobs that such a degree would prepare me for. I taught at the university, I taught in my home community-- all adult education programs. There was no where this degree would take me that I had not already gone professionally.

So I sat on the fence. Application forms for the MA languished in my desk for five years.

Last spring I got a serious itch; one that told me I had to do something new. I have always loved science and decided to take the plunge and apply for a Bachelor in Science. Kitchen science experiments with the kids just weren't satiating my appetite.

Of course it wasn't the best time to go back to school; I still had two young children and would have to take a double financial hit--paying for the courses and paying someone to watch my kids while I went to school. But I thought, either I start now or start later, it does not make much difference except I'll be happier if I start a new goal now. So I did.

The first semester I took only one course, in the evening and it hardly felt like going to school at all. I did not feel like I was 'back at it'. And the course I took was not particularly challenging. It was about things that I encountered in my normal reading life; climate change, health, earth history. I was looking to expand my horizons and hoped that when I got into more classes I would find something outside of my comfort zone.

This semester has certainly done that. I am now in the lab, running experiments, learning a bout things that I would not have encountered if I did not take these courses. This is exactly what I was looking for; finally I feel like I am back in school.

And being back in an undergrad program with people that could be my own kids might have been weird; I expected it to be. But it has not been. The students I work with in lab don't blink an eye when I counter their hangover stories with ones about how my kids kept me up all night. They don't treat me any differently than anyone else, they chat before class, and I don't feel like I am 20 years their senior-- although I am.

Acceptance from my classmates is a good thing. It makes going to class more enjoyable—that camaraderie is something that I have missed.

The third degree is very different from the first two. In some ways there is much less stress and in others more. When you first go to university you feel like your whole life depends on what you do there, the marks you make and the debt you acquire. And that is true; that is a lot of responsibility to carry around. At this time in my life, this degree is just gravy. I have several well-established career paths; not always stable ones but I can confidently say I am a journalist and a teacher. So this degree does not make or break my future.

And there is the money-- I have no loans, just pay as I go. In those respects things are less stressful.

On the other hand there is the stress of driving to and from university -- will the car make it another day, month,year? The guilt of taking time away from my kids to do my studying. The difficulty of working and going to school. And, at first, the stress of reentering the world of academia-- did I still have what it takes?

So far all those things are ticking over-- I have had exams in all of my courses and have been happy with the results. The winter driving sucks and I am saving money as much as possible for another car if/when needed.

I am much happier now that I am back in school-- have a new mountain to conquer and am using my brain in ways I haven't for years.

I have been meaning to write about this experience for weeks now – but there has been no time. Whenever I had a minute to write – it had to be for work. If I had a minute to read, it had to be for school. I have a total of 10 exams this semester but after the first few crazy weeks I am getting a handle on this school stuff and am starting to melt into it.

I am starting to love the third degree.

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