I figured I’d write a “how I got my agent” post, only about my master’s degrees, because a) I don’t have an agent, so no “how I got my agent” post for me, and b) I guess the point of “how I got my agent” posts is to show that everyone’s journey is different. Everyone’s academic journey is different, too, but we don’t habitually write blog posts about that upon leaving school. So people are out here feeling bad because it took them more than four years to graduate college, or because they’re going to college as an older adult, or because they didn’t go to college at all.
So! Let’s have a “how I got my master’s degrees” post. Because I’m sure on Twitter, where I’m like “LOOK AT ME, I GOT TWO MASTER’S DEGREES AT ONCE, FUCK YEAH,” it looks intimidating/inspiring/disheartening, depending on who you are and how you read it and what your own journey has been like, but the fact is, my college journey didn’t go at all how I thought it would.
As with publication, there are different approaches to education, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It may depend on your career goals and the educational requirements in your field, your own preferences as a learner, or other considerations. It may look like seeking no further education after high school or during high school, seeking a certificate or trade, seeking a degree, or taking lifelong learning classes without any certification or degree path in mind.
For me: I love learning, particularly in a classroom setting, I’ve always done well in school, I like academic topics, I wanted to be a teacher, and my parents and grandparents attained at least a bachelor’s degree.
So it was the obvious choice to go to college. I was going to major in education, and I was going to graduate in four years and work as a teacher.
It’s 2009, and I graduate high school. I’m from Michigan originally, and Michigan was among the first and hardest hit states during the Great Recession, so you can imagine that the family’s general plans and life had sort of gone off the rails by the time I graduated. But anyway I graduated, and I’d been accepted to Ohio Northern University, my dream school at the time.
Here’s the thing: even back then, ONU cost around $50,000 per year between tuition and on-campus housing.
Here’s another thing: my college fund was gone. My grandfather started a fund for me when I was born, but by 2009 the recession had ravaged it. After 18 years, it had $3,000 in it; I don’t know what it had before. The bank asked if I wanted to know, and I said of fucking course not
only more diplomatically because Baby E never would have said that to someone. Sure, bank, I’d love to know how much money I would’ve had had the recession not hit. Jesus.
Anyway, even that $3,000 was gone. We’d needed it to repair the family minivan.
And the Michigan Promise Scholarship that would’ve guaranteed me $1,000/year at Michigan schools for up to four years was canceled that year, not that it would’ve followed me out of state to ONU anyway.
Needless to say, I went to community college to get some core classes out of the way for cheaps.
Two years of community college later, I once again put feelers out to universities. ONU reached out, but I registered for classes at Saginaw Valley State University, which was cheaper and would take more of my classes as transfers as an in-state school.
By this time, my dad had been laid off. So when I sent SVSU my FAFSA – not the first time I’d done so – our reported income was a lot lower than it had been previously.
SVSU didn’t believe the difference was real.
Which I mean…hello??? Recession??? People having been laid off for several years at this point???
But okay fine whatever, whole-ass university apparently unaware of a nationwide recession, fine. They asked us for extra document after extra document to prove that our income was what we said it was, and in the end my financial aid package was…a $1500 loan.
What the actual fuck.
Our expected family contribution was something like $14,000 per year, which was unrealistic even before my dad lost his job, despite the fact that my dad had spent most of my life to that point working two or three jobs at a time.
I was angry and panicked. SVSU was out, my time at community college was done, and I didn’t know what to do.
My ex told me Ohio schools would give me money, so I applied to Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo. In the end, I chose UT because they gave me a better financial aid package.
Unfortunately, they also gave me out-of-state tuition – some $5,000 per semester on top of the usual tuition. They were so big that I had no idea how to meet people or find out about events, especially since I was living off-campus to save money. Many of my courses from community college didn’t transfer, so I had to waste money on taking the same courses over again.
The first year at UT, I owed $500 out of pocket and called my mom in a panic to see about getting it taken care of. The second year, to my relief, I was fully covered.
The third year, the scholarship I received to offset the out-of-state tuition expired.
The out-of-state tuition did not.
Unable to scrape together an additional $5,000/semester to pay for out-of-state tuition I was charged even though I should’ve been classified as in-state by then, I took the 2013-2014 school year off. I felt like a failure: I “should” have graduated in 2013, as a high school grad of 2009, but instead I was not only not done but dropping out.
Temporarily dropping out, I insisted to myself. After all, I had a good reason. I didn’t have the funds for college and had no idea how to go about finding more, especially since I had been working all through school.
Since I was out of school for more than 6 months, I had to start paying back my student loans. At that time, my payment was $150/month – laughably low compared to the national average, but a huge amount of money for me. Even working full-time, and despite living with roommates, I barely managed to pay all my bills each month, since I was working in a grocery store for little more than minimum wage.
But in 2014, I got married, which meant more household income for general bills and no more out-of-state tuition: I lived in Ohio, and no one could include my parents’ income in their consideration of my funds.
I applied for reentry to UT, got a bill that didn’t include out-of-state tuition, and got a financial aid package that covered everything. I cried when I got my letter, I was so happy to be going back to school – and it was so much easier than it had been the first time.
That school year, my advisor tried to prepare me for student teaching the following year.
“Don’t work while student teaching,” he advised me.
I didn’t say anything because I was even more conflict-avoidant than I am today, but I thought incredulously, Is the university going to pay my bills while I work for free as a teacher without working for pay at the grocery store?
I was on the fence about student teaching anyway. At this point in my school career, I had taken my methods class. I’d interned as an educator at the botanical garden and was working part-time at an academic afterschool program in addition to my usual grocery work, but I was starting to feel like maybe teaching in a traditional classroom wasn’t right for me.
Then I got divorced.
I should preface this by saying that getting divorced was 100% my choice. It’s instinctual, I think, for most people to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” when you say, “I’m divorced,” but getting divorced was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Possibly the best. I had a panic attack a day while I was married. My anxiety mysteriously (if not entirely) cleared up once I got divorced, as did the bulk of my stress-related health issues.
(Funny how that works, huh?)
Anyway, now that I was back to a single income, in 2015 I dropped out again. I couldn’t possibly work enough to pay my bills while still attending school, especially since I didn’t have roommates anymore.
(My previous roommates had been my ex’s family, so that was out of the question.)
As it is, once student loans came around due again, I could just barely pay my bills by working full-time at the store and part-time at several sites with the afterschool program.
At that point, I wasn’t sure I was ever going back to college. Obviously money was at the forefront of dropping out again, but it was more than that. I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach anymore, in which case why was I getting a degree in education? How was I supposed to get such a degree in the first place if it meant sacrificing income for student teaching? Something always went wrong with financial aid, and despite the fact that I’d always been good at school and had maintained a high GPA throughout college, school increasingly stressed me tf out.
Getting divorced made me reevaluate everything I wanted. I had no idea what I wanted to do if I didn’t want to go to college, but I knew college wasn’t right for me just then.
So I spent a few years working full-time at the store and part-time at the afterschool program, working my way up at both jobs, paying down student loans, and, for the first time in my adult life, building a small savings account.
It wasn’t bad, honestly. It was nice feeling like I was actually getting somewhere with my income, especially when I moved in with my now-partner and had a lot fewer bills to worry about. I didn’t love the grocery work and often stressed about the afterschool work, but I didn’t hate the grocery work and liked the afterschool work. I didn’t have benefits, but I made halfway decent money compared to what I’d ever made before. I had a supportive partner and no longer had constant panic attacks.
But I still felt like I didn’t know who I was now that I’d yeeted myself off the path I’d been on since 2009. And even though no one in my immediate family ever so much as asked when or if I was going back to school, I felt bad about dropping out. It was such an unexpected move – unexpected not only to me but to anyone who’d ever known me. So even though it was the best move at the time, it left me feeling adrift and ashamed.
My partner occasionally and quietly mentioned school to me, the same way I occasionally and quietly mentioned anxiety meds to him. I didn’t take it seriously at any particular time, still felt like maybe I’d never go back.
But after learning about a master’s degree in organizational leadership, which might let me expand my work in the nonprofit sector – which seemed like something I might maybe want to do, since I loved my afterschool program despite the stress – in 2017, I started nosing around colleges again.
In 2018, I started at Lourdes University, determined to finally complete my bachelor’s degree that school year since I’d been told I only had 36 credit hours to graduation. I cried when I got my acceptance letter. I cried when I got my financial aid letter.
After crying, I got to work.
18 credit hours per semester is a lot to carry, and I wouldn’t recommend it to most anyone, but at 27 I was prepared to carry it in a way I hadn’t been prepared to carry 15 or 16 credit hours earlier in my school career. Since I could enter the master’s program I had my eye on with any undergraduate degree, I switched from education to English. I loved my coursework. I learned to take breaks. And because the school was a significantly smaller one than UT, I had an easier time getting involved in campus life despite again and as always living off-campus.
In 2019, ten years after I started college, I finally graduated with my bachelor’s degree.
By this point, I had
been tricked into decided to pursue an MA in Theology in additional to the MOL I had come to Lourdes for. Everyone was astonished and understandably trepidatious that I was in two master’s programs at once, but after my turbulent undergraduate journey, I felt equipped to handle it.
Plus, I always joked, it took me ten years to get one degree. With my master’s degrees, I was diving right in and getting them done.
My first semester went well and made me confident that I could handle the course load, especially since I was only working part-time in a student position with graduate admissions: I had quit my last grocery job to return to school for my bachelor’s degree, and, burnt out from seven years of teaching, I quit my afterschool job before starting grad school in Fall 2019. My income sucked, but it’s not like I had lost any benefits, since I’d never had any to begin with, and my partner made enough money to keep food on the table while I went to school. I made enough money to pay my car insurance and phone bill, and as a bonus, because I was a student, I could work on assignments during work.
Everything was going pretty well, and then…well, you know what happened next.
At this point in the pandemic, I was burnt tf out. I could see a light at the end of a tunnel – one tunnel, at least; we’ve been going through plenty different tunnels since December 2019 – namely: if I could only make it through to December, I’d graduate.
Cue me procrastinating horribly on all my coursework, particularly my master’s thesis. I intended to do one combined thesis for both programs, but there was so much to fit into it, I barely knew what I wanted to do, and I absolutely did not feel like working on any coursework more strenuous than a weekly reading. I procrastinated by writing and revising a new novel, but otherwise I scrolled endlessly through social media, perfectly well aware that I ought to put it away and do homework instead.
I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. Surely a year of pandemic schooling counts as five years of regular schooling, in which case couldn’t they just give me my degrees?
Shoutout to absolutely everyone who’s done any amount and any level of schooling during the pandemic. It’s been hella rough, I know. Whether you’re still going or taking time off or quitting entirely, I see you and I love you and I hope your mental health’s okay.
Oddly enough, what pushed me through to the end was a hospital stay in October.
Here’s the thing: I needed a fucking break. Naps weren’t cutting it. Scrolling through social media while ignoring my homework wasn’t cutting it. Nothing was cutting it. Nothing left me feeling ready to cope with school again, whether I’d been actively working or not.
In October, I went to the ER for what I was convinced was just stressed but thought might be appendicitis (which is the main reason I finally caved in despite my lack of health insurance and insistence I was just stressed, while my partner worried and asked repeatedly if I wanted to go to the hospital). Turns out it was neither, but I ended up in the hospital for almost a week.
While I was there, I slept for the first time since about August, I did zero work of any kind, I spent no time at all on social media, I had my partner answer all important texts and emails and reach out to my professors for me. A n d I didn’t feel guilty about any of it.
I mean, I was in the hospital. I had the mother of all reasons not to be doing coursework.
I rested for an additional two weeks once I got home – especially the first week after surgery, during which I couldn’t make it through a day without sleeping on and off or spending most of the day horizontal.
Technically speaking, I lost a lot of time during which I could’ve been otherwise working on my thesis, or rather theses, since at this point I’d given up the idea of a single, combined thesis as a lost cause.
In reality, three weeks of rest from absolutely everything, guilt-free, alleviated my burnout to the point where I was able to complete both theses within little more than a month.
(To clarify, I had done some amount of work earlier, particularly my research. It’s not like I wrote two master’s theses from scratch in one month. But I did do most of the actual writing in a month, which was – unsurprisingly, since you know how much I love NaNoWriMo – during November. I made an accountability thread on Twitter and everything.)
And finally, in December, this happened.
It’s fun to watch people’s faces when they find out I got two master’s degrees concurrently, but honestly I don’t recommend it. Maybe my perception is skewed because I went to grad school almost entirely during a pandemic; maybe during normal times, if you’re not working full-time and love school, two degrees at once is a-okay.
Maybe not, though.
Anyway, a final reminder, and the whole reason I wrote this post: everyone’s educational path is different. It took me 10 years to get my undergraduate degree and graduated the same year as both my younger sisters – only one of us did college in four years. My mom went to law school in her forties. My dad is going to law school at almost sixty. I’ve been in class with people older than that.
You don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed if you don’t want to get higher education, or if you want to but don’t, or if you drop out at some point, or if it takes you a long time to graduate, or if you never graduate, or if you go back to school as a much older student.
And if anyone tries to shame you for taking more than four years for college or not going at all, throw a drink in their face and yell, “YOU’RE NOT MY REAL MOM, KAREN.”
Unless of course it is your real mom and her name is Karen.
You might need to yell something else in that case.
6 thoughts on “How I got my
Love this so much. And CONGRATS!
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Thank you so much, Erin!
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This is like a version of my college and grad school journey on steroids, especially with getting into schools I’d have loved to had gone to, but not being able to afford it. The major difference is that I was finishing college right as the recession hit because of stupid decisions I’d mad…er…because I got the bright idea two years prior to graduate early. I desperately want to go back for my doctorate, but that looks less and less likely with life circumstances. I’m quite proud of you and excited for you for reaching your goals though!
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Thanks so much, Tim! Rip finishing college right at that time – if only the recession hadn’t turned otherwise good ideas into bad ideas. I hope you get to get your doctorate eventually! Maybe it’ll take a while, but a doctorate will still be there waiting if you decide to go back to school once you’re (possibly much, much) older.