Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 24, 2008

The 26-year plan

“Experience is a good school, but the fees are high.” ~ German poet Heinrich Heine

I think of it as the 26-year plan.

I graduated from high school in 1982. Ten days ago, I graduated from college. Finally.

Although my undergraduate college career was far from traditional, it started in a fairly typical manner. Without a silver spoon or scholarships, I worked part time and used Pell Grants to pay for tuition and books.

Shortly after I started college, the Reagan Administration drastically cut Pell Grants and I began taking out student loans.

An expensive health crisis intervened, so I found a better-paying full-time job and attended college part time.

A family crisis took more time away from college. I gradually enrolled in fewer courses until I eventually became a former student.

In the meantime, I married, started a family, quit work and became a stay-at-home mom. College became an unaffordable luxury both in terms of money and time away from young children.

When our youngest child entered kindergarten, I decided to return to the workforce.

During that job hunt, it quickly became clear that I needed a college diploma. Most human-resource screeners and hiring managers were unwilling to risk hiring me without the blessing of a four-year accredited institution.

It’s tempting to dismiss those potential employers with a flippant “it’s their loss” — and it was — but that doesn’t tell the entire story. It was also my loss — I missed untold opportunities because I couldn’t get through the college degree filter that so many employers use to screen applicants.

So, when I landed a technical editing job at a high-tech company that came with tuition reimbursement benefits, I was determined to take full advantage of those benefits. I searched for a program that was right for me. I wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree, meaning nearby Gavilan Community College was out. I couldn’t spend lots of time driving to and from campus. I had the money for school, but with work and family commitments, very limited time.

To eliminate the commute, I decided to look for distance education programs. But I was particular: I wanted a distance education program that was associated with a respected brick-and-mortar college. I found DePaul University’s School for New Learning.

It wasn’t cheap. Taking one class each quarter consumed my employer’s annual tuition reimbursement benefit. I plugged away, aware that high-tech industry jobs can disappear as quickly as bubbles can burst. Even so, my financial and time limits dictated a tortoise-like pace: slow but consistent. I regularly checked off items on my learning plan, always inching closer to my goal.

Then, last fall, I was laid off from my technical editing job. I wasn’t terribly surprised, but I was frustrated by the timing. When I lost my job, I also lost my tuition reimbursement benefits. It felt like the universe was conspiring — again — to keep me from reaching my goal, and at the worst possible time: when I needed to look for a job.

Instead of quitting school this time, I spent a good chunk of my layoff package on college costs, used my suddenly free time to pack lots of coursework into two final quarters, and earned my bachelor’s degree.

Eleven days ago, I stepped foot on the DePaul University campus for the first time to pick up my cap and gown.

Ten days ago, I walked across a stage at the beautiful Civic Opera House in downtown Chicago with 400 or so other adult students in DePaul’s School for New Learning program to celebrate the completion of our non-traditional routes to earning our degrees.

I’m now considering graduate school. So many areas tempt me: law, communications, information design, human-computer interaction, technical writing and more. The possibilities seem endless and I’m dazzled by the choices.

But whether or not I pursue a graduate degree, I know this much: I’m the same smart, capable person I was before DePaul’s president shook my hand on the Civic Opera House stage ten days ago.

Still, it’s awfully nice to have a four-year accredited institution’s seal of approval.

“I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.” ~ entertainer Eartha Kitt

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