Friday, May 28, 2010

Are you the one holding you back?

I talked to my sister tonight. Like some other times I've talked to her, she was feeling frustrated at the walls that she has run into while trying to chase her dreams. What concerned me, however, was the tone in her voice that sounded like she had given up. She seemed to have decided that since she does not have a degree from a 4-year university, she was never going to be able to pursue the career she wants.

The conversation both made me sad and frustrated me. Although she has encountered some pretty big obstacles, I did not feel like they were impossible to scale. At one point, I told her, "Go get yourself some rock climbing gear, and let's get you over that wall!"

She feels like I don't understand how hard it is to not have a degree, because I have one. Maybe, she has a point. Though I know that when I am hiring, I don't even notice if my candidates have a degree. I look for skills, passion, pursuit of what they feel is right. I know that at least some others do the same.

I do, however, know what it's like to feel that the odds are stacked against you, and to feel like you might as well not try.

At age 19 I found myself single, pregnant, and a sophomore in college. The semester I found out I was pregnant, I was already struggling with a Biology curriculum. I had barely passed my first year and a half of school, and with a baby due in June, my spring semester was atrocious. I missed most of my classes that semester. By the time I asked for a medical leave, I had missed the deadline to do so by a week. That semester, I failed out of every single class and was placed on academic suspension.

After my son was born, I landed a temp job as a secretary for the Computer Engineering department at Clemson (where I had been attending classes before the baby). I worked for them for several months. When I started talking about going back to school, they were very encouraging of me. They encouraged me to go back and study Computer Science (because I "seemed to be pretty good with computers"), and they walked me through applying again. I was able to get the college to accept me back as a student, but as the summer before classes started began to fade away, my hopes for getting financial aid began to fade with it. I was told that I simply did not qualify for financial aid because I had been placed on academic suspension.

I had no money. I was a single parent, living with my parents. My parents had not saved for my college, so I had been relying fully on financial aid in order to go to school. Panicked, I thought this one barrier of money was going to stop me from going back to school.

(Edit from my original post because I realized I glossed over the most important part!)

(Let's pause here for a second. This situation looks pretty bleak at this point, right? I could very easily have stopped right there and given up. I mean, they told me, "Those are the rules, academic suspension = no financial aid when you come back until you prove you'll do better." Seems like a deal breaker to me. **That**, however, is the point of this post. I didn't let it be a deal breaker. I kept trying to go after what I wanted anyway. So, let's get back to the story....)

I really felt like the circumstances that lead to my academic suspension should be forgivable. I felt like they were pretty extreme and that I should still be able to finish my education and get the degree I wanted. I talked about it *a lot*. Apparently, the professors that I had been working with felt the same way.

All of the professors that I had been working with in the Computer Engineering department wrote letters to the financial aid department at the school. All of them made an argument to the school that the opportunity they gave me would be well worth it, that an investment in my future would pay off for the school in a shining star. I gathered several of these letters and took them to the financial aid department. I was shocked when they offered enough aid to get me back into school!!

My first semester back to school, I made Dean's List. Three and a half years later, I graduated from Clemson with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. I spent those three and a half years supporting myself and my son in a home of our own, working full time, and taking full-time computer science classes. My senior year of college included 7 comp sci classes and a physics class.

Me? I know barriers.

But I don't see them as showstoppers. They exist, and they are big, and at times I am really intimidated by them. At times, I don't think I can get past them. The truth is, sometimes I can't. Sometimes, "over the wall" doesn't work, but it turns out, if I scale the wall long enough, I can find a small crack that has crumbled enough for me to squeeze my body through. The point is, I just have to *keep trying*.

If I give up, the result will always be the same -- I definitely won't accomplish what I want. But if I try, and keep on trying, and look to others for ideas, something just might happen. Maybe it won't be exactly what I want, but maybe it will be better.

6 comments:

Bri said...

I really hope your sister can see your strength and find some of it in herself. There is always a way to make something happen. It may be the most difficult thing you've ever done and you may decide it's not worth it, but there is always a way. I hope she finds hers.

James Marcus Bach said...

I admire your achievement as an achievement. Climbing Everest is also an achievement, but university degrees and climbing Everest have something in common: either might teach you something, but neither are necessary to a happy, productive, and impressive life.

Your sister has been infected with the shameful propaganda that only through an institution can you develop your mind and be given credit for it.

I'm a high school dropout, and proud of that. I'm proud that my son is an elementary school dropout, too. I'll also be proud if my son decides he wants to try college. It's all good.

What I love to see is people taking their lives in their own hands, as you and I have done. I hope you can help your sister see that there are possibilities everywhere. She is not trapped. She is not anyone's slave.

-- James Marcus Bach, Author, Teacher, Buccaneer-Scholar

Paul Boos said...

Great post Dawn! It gives me the inspiration to keep trying to scale or remove hte barriers I encounter at work. Thanks for sharing such a personal and inspirational story.

Gerald M. Weinberg said...

Great essay, Dawn. I hope your sis reframes her situation. I suggest she (and you) take a look at http://www.kristinekathrynrusch.com/
The essay on "Giving Up On Yourself" is written for writers, but works for everybody!

Ac said...

I've been working QA and Development for 10 years now, with another 10 years in technology in general. (building pc's, military, etc)

I didn't go to college either, but I never saw it as a limitation or as holding me back. I've made good 6 figure salaries. I was an Instructor for Sun Microsystems for 3 years.

Now, I'm building a QA/QC department from scratch, basing a lot of it on Selenium and other tools. There are times when I am worried, or think I'm not the right person for the job. I usually let those doubts pass as they aren't helpful.

Thanks for the good read!

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