On Graduation Day

In May of 1995 I should have graduated from high school in the rocky mountains of Montana. Then, in the following fall, say around August or September, I should have started my pursuit of a college degree. Finally, in May of 2000, I should have graduated from college with a bachelors degree in who knows what.

As fate or God would have it though, that’s not the path I took. One night too many spent on the fringe, one too many parties, and one too many disappointments for my parents, and I dropped out of high school in December of 1994. Even then, I thought that I might be making a mistake, so I went ahead and took the GED test, which I passed with flying colors. For nearly a year, I travelled around Washington state. Sleeping in tents, staying with a friend in his uncle’s garage, hanging out at a Rainbow Festival… but in the back of my mind, I knew something was wrong. Something inside of me wouldn’t let go of the fact that what I was doing was wrong.

So, one day, after way too much for way too long, I went home, and from there, I left everything I knew behind me and joined the Navy. Looking back on it now, joining the Navy in October of ‘95 was probably the best decision I ever made. The Navy forced me to sober up, and gave me a structured, goal oriented lifestyle that appealed to me. The Navy gave me discipline when I had no self control. The Navy taught me to believe in myself after many years of being an outcast. The Navy taught me the value of hard work. I began to make incremental steps towards knowing who I really was. Work hard, and make rank. Study hard, and pass the test. The work that I was forced to do turned into its own reward. I am today, a better man because of the time I spent in the Navy.

However, even with the success I had in the military, I regretted never walking across that stage and receiving my high school diploma. For anyone in the position to care, let me tell you right now, a GED is NOT an equivalent to a degree. A GED labels you for life as a quitter, and someone who couldn’t make it at a very basic level. For this, I was ashamed. So, in January of 2000, after transferring to shore duty overseas, I started working on my college degree.

It was fun at first, I took Speech and English, and a few IT courses. A little at a time, when I had the time, one or two courses a semester, sometimes face to face, mostly distance ed, I worked on my degree. Years passed, I transferred back to the States, and I kept taking courses. Some were really difficult (like Project Management… uggg), some were morally challenging (Myth and Culture), and some were genuinely interesting (Algebra, Writing, and Programming). I liked college, not only because the courses I took and the professors I had were interesting, but because the I was constantly challenged. I had something in college that I didn’t have in high school, the drive to succeed… to be the best.

Part of that is growing up. Part of it is the discipline I learned in the military. Part of it is that I was just an angry kid who needed some direction. What ever the reason, the result is that I did finally grow up and realize how important education was. The mistakes I made in high school have taken me thirteen years to correct. But, two days ago, on September 8th, 2008, I was awarded my Bachelors Degree in Information Systems Management from the University of Maryland University College. It took eight and a half years. That’s eight and a half years of lost weekends because I was holed up in the bedroom doing homework. That’s eight and a half years of long nights of studying at night after the kids were in bed. That’s eight and a half years of justifying taking classes, making financial arrangements, taking time away from my wife and our growing family, writing papers, solving formulas, graphs, charts, proctored tests… and stress.

I wasted three years of high school, and it took me eight and a half years to earn my respect back.

Was it worth it? Depends on the question. Was what I did as a kid worth the work that it took to repair the damage? I’d have to say that’s a qualified… almost. I can’t explain what I did as a teenager, but I can say that I’ve been places and seen things that most people have not. If your question was “Is the degree worth the work and the time that you put into it?” I have one answer for you.

Yes.

My degree may never “pay-off” in terms of a big promotion or more opportunities (although it probably will in the long run). I didn’t really need the degree with my experience and expertise in IT. The job that I have now required a bachelors or “equivalent experience”. When I took the job I did not have the degree, but I had the experience, so one could argue that I don’t need the degree at all. For the most part, they’d probably be right.

The degree is worth the effort because I’m a high school drop out. It’s worth it because the look of disappointment in my Mom’s eyes was more than I could bear. It’s worth it because I want my kids to be able to look up to me. The degree is worth it because it was a goal that I had for eight and a half years, and I finally achieved it. Yes, yes, yes, yes yes… the degree is worth every minute of time I put into it, and every penny that it cost.

Mountain climbers, as far as I’m aware, are not paid to climb a mountain, but ask one who has made it to the top if it was worth it.