Last week, I applied to graduate during the fall 2020 commencement with a Master of Science in Marketing and Communication. Earning a master’s degree is a significant achievement, but for me, it’s also closing a painful chapter in my life.
This is the narrative I needed to write for over 17 years. It’s also one of the most difficult. But given the milestone I’m about to achieve, I feel like I’m in a good place now to talk about this painful part of my past.
My current graduate program is my second attempt at grad school. My first attempt was from 2001-2003 in a Master of Arts in English program.
For two years, I devoted most of my waking hours either to my own classes or to teaching classes. I ate, slept, and breathed my graduate program and my role as an undergraduate composition instructor.
I was a good student — maybe not the best in the program, but good enough to earn an academic scholarship. And I was, so far as I know, well respected among my fellow grad students and most of the faculty I worked with.
Was I a good instructor? Well, that depends on the individual student, I suppose. I didn’t please everyone. But I also learned during these two years that teaching was not for me. And for the most part, you don’t go to grad school in a discipline like English unless your intent is to work in academia. (For the record, I love the academic environment. I just didn’t love teaching.)
During this time, I was with the man who is now my husband. He was stationed in Georgia while I was in Ohio, so we carried on a long-distance relationship this entire time. I mostly only saw him during breaks and long weekends.
All these things I’m mentioning matter because they factored into what finally happened.
Now, in my program, there were two options for finishing the master’s degree:
Option 1: Write a thesis.
Option 2: Take a comprehensive exam.
After several conversations with my graduate advisor, I opted for the exam. This was the recommended option for those who did not intend to pursue a Ph.D. The exam process took pretty much the entire final semester of the program. I had to choose two literary periods to focus on, create a reading list from these periods, put together an exam committee of three faculty members (one specializing in each of my chosen periods, and another to be the committee chair), and get my reading list approved. The exam itself consisted of a written component first, followed by an oral component with my committee.
Spring 2003 was my final semester. I got engaged in January 2003 — just a few months before my then-fiance (now husband) moved from Georgia to Germany (where I was, of course, also going to live once we got married). So, that was already a major adjustment to process before diving into my final semester.
However, I checked all the boxes for the exam. Literary periods, check. Reading list, check. Committee, check. Reading list approval, check.
And so, I began the arduous process of preparing for the exam. And taking my final classes. And teaching. And planning a wedding. And preparing to move overseas.
You’d think I would get some support from the English Department during this time. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. No. Two of the three members of my committee took off for most of the semester because they had gotten jobs at an out-of-state university and were preparing to move. So they were unavailable when I had questions. The remaining professor wasn’t really able to answer any questions I had. It was always, “I don’t know.” I’m not sure any of them really understood a thing about the exam process. That should have been a red flag for me, but I pressed onward and continued studying.
At the same time, a few of the other grad students were also preparing for exams. Their committees seemed to have a better understanding of what was going on, so I basically used what they were doing and how they were doing it as a guideline to help me prepare.
My committee did answer at least one question for me, though — and this I remember vividly. They told me I did not have to recite poetry from memory during my oral exam.
I went into my exam feeling as ready as I could be under the circumstances. The written portion was tough and took a few excruciating days. I don’t remember much about it. It was the oral portion that turned my world upside down.
I walked to campus that day to take the edge off. It was a good 20-minute walk, which I thought would clear my head. I was called into the exam room, where I sat across the table from the three professors on my committee.
The exam began.
They asked questions about literature that was not on my reading list.
They asked questions about time periods that were not my area of focus.
They asked me to recite poetry from memory.
At times it seemed I was taking someone else’s exam. However, enough of the exam was tailored to my reading list to know it was MY exam and not someone else’s.
The exam ended, and I was told to sit in the student lounge and wait for their decision. I didn’t need to wait. The second I closed the exam room door, I started sobbing. I knew exactly what the outcome would be.
No master’s degree.
Two years of my life wasted.
Student loan debt with nothing to show for it.
The only saving grace of that day was a friend of mine, a Ph.D. student, who was in the student lounge at the time. She stayed with me and made sure I got home later on. She also told me to eat all the chocolates I brought with me to give to my committee as a thank you gift. And I did.
I cried all day. I called my mom, and she cried with me. I can’t begin to describe the devastation of something like this.
A few days later, I moved back home with my parents. I was a couple weeks from flying to Germany to help get settled into our rental house. Before I left town, I met with the dean of the graduate program. He was, shall we say, unsympathetic. He told me I could put together another committee and try again, but it was obvious he thought I was wasting his time.
When I was back in Columbus, I started hearing from some of the grad students. More than one person said I was deliberately set up to fail, and that’s why the exam had questions that did not match my preparations. The faculty had apparently decided they were dissatisfied with the overall performance of the graduate students, so they wanted to make an example of someone to scare everyone else.
I wasn’t planning to move on to a Ph.D. program. I was also one of the first to take the exam. And I guess they figured that failing the exam wasn’t going to destroy the trajectory of my life. (Which is true.) I was, in other words, the perfect scapegoat.
I wrestled with whether to believe any of this or not. I wanted to put the whole mess behind me and try to focus on the rest of my life. But too many people said things like this to me (including a faculty member), and academics from other institutions told me this wasn’t a unique situation, and I fell prey to academic politics.
I tried to move on. I spent the rest of 2003 focusing on the wedding and Germany.
In 2004, I tried again. I checked in with the English Department, and they told me to start the process. However, I only found one faculty member for my committee. I was a pariah. No one else wanted to work with me.
And so, the specter of this unfinished business has haunted me since then. I successfully completed all the required coursework. It was that damn exam that kept me from getting the diploma. I spent a lot of time being angry … with myself … with the English Department … with the faculty members involved.
To this day, failing that exam is my measuring stick for anything bad that happens in my life. Only the deaths of dearly beloved family members have been worse. Everything else? I can survive and move on.
If not finishing that degree has altered anything about my trajectory in life, it’s only made me hungrier to succeed. Earning a master’s degree has remained on my bucket list since then, and I have had a fire within me to get it done and kick ass while doing it.
So, here I am — twelve weeks away from completing all my coursework. I’m in a program that is nothing at all like my previous experience. Everyone is invested in student success. Everyone is supportive and available to answer questions. This program is for working adults, and we aren’t expected to eat, sleep, and breathe grad school.
I am excelling in all my classes. And I finish off with a six-week capstone — an independent study project supervised by the lead faculty of the program.
I got this.