I was never one to choose a word or two to set my intentions for the year. Though if I had to choose one retroactively for 2020, it would be “perseverance.” Despite everything 2020 threw at the world, I persevered. I kept my job. I didn’t get sick. And I finished my master’s degree.
For 2021, I decided on “thrive” to set my intention. But as I decorated our fireplace mantle yesterday (both for the new year and my upcoming graduation), I decided “celebrate” is appropriate, too.
My intention in 2021 is to celebrate both the large victories and the small. The milestones and the simple moments. I don’t want to take anything for granted.
But I also want to thrive. In my professional life. In my personal life. In my health.
So, there is my intention for 2021.
We adopted Reece on May 17, 2008, when she was only four months old. We said goodbye on December 23, 2020, when she was less a month away from turning 13.
In her final days, she alternated between days of lethargy and her usual energy levels. That’s why it was so hard to know something was really wrong. One day, she’d refuse to play or interact with us. The next day, she was her normal self.
On Wednesday, she was acting normally until just after lunchtime. Then things went quickly downhill. We knew, this time, that it wasn’t just some passing illness. When she refused to eat even her very favorite food … when she went outside and laid down in the grass and refused to get up. She had to be carried back inside.
Our regular vet had closed for the holidays. My husband, L, took her to the emergency vet, which is, thankfully, near our house. I stayed home with our other dog.
Maybe an hour later … less … he called me. They found bleeding in her stomach and a mass that was very likely cancer. Nothing they could do. Surgery or chemo would only extend her life a few months.
He came back to the house to pick me up and take me back. When they brought Reece in, she already had the catheter taped to her leg — what they would use to administer euthanasia. She was more alert when she came in to see us than she had been for most of the afternoon. They told us we could take as much time as we needed, and to let them know when we’re ready.
Who is ever ready for this?
We spent a few private minutes with her. She was more focused on L than she was on me. I’m not sure my presence registered much with her at all. I also remember the receptionists talking and laughing outside the door, which was awful for me. L couldn’t tell them we were ready, so I had to do it. We weren’t ready, of course. But best to get it over with and not prolong everyone’s misery.
A few minutes later, the veterinarian came in. I don’t even remember her name. Reece wagged her tail when the vet came in and gave her a few kisses when she crouched down to Reece’s level. She explained step by step what she was going to do, since we had never gone through this before.
Within minutes, it was done. Reece was breathing. And then she simply wasn’t. I asked about next steps. L apparently had already discussed cremation with her. She explained that they would call us when the ashes were ready, and we’d get a clay imprint of her paw. She asked us if we wanted a stamped paw print on paper to take home with us that night, but I was numb with shock and just wanted to leave immediately.
It took a while for the tears to come. But they flowed most of the day on the 24th.
I find it odd that I’m not having those moments other people speak about. Where they turn around and expect their pet to be there. When they forget for just a second and call their pet’s name. I wake up each morning, and the weight of her absence presses on me immediately. The house is too quiet.
Our other dog is grieving, too. He still looks back toward the house when we let him outside, expecting her to follow him. In his grief and confusion, he hasn’t eaten much (very unusual for him, since he’s very food motivated). And he’s been sleeping more than usual.
Nighttime is the hardest for me. As I lie in bed trying to drift off to sleep, I keep reliving those moments in the veterinarian’s office over and over. Being alone with my thoughts right now is a pretty terrible thing.
Tomorrow, when I return to my home office to go back to work, she won’t be with me. Reece always spent the day in my office during my work hours. We have a dog bed up there for her, and I have a chair that folds out into a lounge/bed, which she also used.
Not having her quiet presence there to keep me company when I work is going to hurt a lot.
I just published my first article on LinkedIn, which is based on my capstone. Please read it, if you feel so inclined.
I DID IT!
On December 31, a Master of Science in Marketing and Communication will be conferred upon me.
On January 12, my diploma will be mailed to me. I assume this is also when my regalia will be sent.
On January 29, my graduation ceremony will stream online.
I have been encouraged to continue the work I started in my capstone. It is an issue that is incredibly important to me, so I will start thinking about it next week.
This week, I take a break. And breathe.
And now, a poem that inspires my cap decoration (yes, I am doing it still, despite not having an in-person ceremony). After my previous, failed attempt at earning my master’s, it seems appropriate.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
— William Ernest Henley
Two weeks from this evening, it’s all done.
I will get my final grades within the following week. And soon, I will be able to put an M.S. after my name on my LinkedIn profile.
It’s getting real.
I’ve spent the evening making some updates to my portfolio. I wanted to add what I feel are the highlights from my program. I’ll slowly be adding more things in the coming weeks.
Capstone, week 1. SIX WEEKS LEFT OF MY MASTER’S DEGREE PROGRAM.
I set up a separate blog to document my capstone research. If you feel so inclined, you can follow it here.
Also, I got professional headshots done a couple weeks ago. The photo shoot was at the Park of Roses, and it was super fun. I got my final headshot back today.
If you live in Central Ohio, I highly recommend Headshots Columbus if you need a headshot.
As of today, I have seven weeks left of grad school.
It’s crazy to me. I remember the first day of class very clearly. It was October 1 of last year, so it really wasn’t so long ago. But it felt like such a mountain to climb at the time. My first instructor, Ted, said the program would fly by. He wasn’t kidding.
This is the final week of my Marketing Communication Management and Leadership course. Next week, I start the capstone. Six weeks. One research project. I think I’ve decided on my topic, but I have to look at the research that’s already been published about my topic in order to refine it.
I hope to document that process here.
Commencement is scheduled for January 10. I am a little disappointed it’s in 2021. This year could use a positive ending. But it’s likely going to be virtual anyway. I’ll get my cap, gown, hood, and diploma before then.
A friend of mine proposed a Zoom graduation party – fancy headwear required. Naturally, I will be there in full graduate regalia. I think I need to do it. Bring your own cocktails.
I needed to get out this morning for a little garden therapy. Maybe you could use some, too.
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.