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.
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.
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.
I’m such a library nerd. I have been since I was a kid, and every almost trip to the library resulted in me walking out with a stack of books in my arms, eager to go home and dive in.
One of my favorite activities used to be perusing the stacks to find a book (or several) to read. Sometimes I knew exactly what I wanted and sometimes not. I actually thought it was more fun when I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I would inevitably leave the library with a book I’d never heard of and an author I’d never read. The library is full of undiscovered treasures.
Even as an academic, I loved going into the dark, neglected recesses of the university library to look for dusty tomes that hadn’t been touched in years. (When you study some fairly obscure old texts, you have to dig deep to find what you’re looking for.)
Everything went digital, and I forgot the pleasures of browsing at the library. Life no longer affords me much time to spend at the library, so I peruse titles on the library website instead. Oh, that digital book is available right now? Sure! It looks good! Download to Kindle.
That’s been my primary way of reading for some time now. No trips to the library necessary.
And the major difference with grad school now, as opposed to my last journey through academia, is that everything I need is online. I don’t need to drive to campus. I don’t need to visit the library. Everything is quick and accessible on my computer. (I’m still getting used to digital textbooks. There was something so satisfying about marking up a textbook, but now it’s all nice and neat.)
Yesterday, I had to stop at the library to return a DVD. But I found myself with some unexpected free time, and I had just finished a book on my Kindle. Why not, for old time’s sake, browse the library shelves and pick out something to read?
Suddenly, I remembered how great that visual and tactile experience was. I only knew I was looking for something on the shorter side. I have so little time to read for pleasure nowadays, I can’t deal with an excessively long novel.
To pull a book off the shelf, read the cover, leaf through the pages, and decide if I want to take it home with me? I forgot how wonderful that is. Doing it online is not nearly as fun, nor does it engage your senses nearly as much.
Ultimately, I chose Rutherford Park by Elizabeth Cooke – a book I never heard of, but it was compared to Downton Abbey, so I could hardly resist.
It’ll be nice to rest my eyes a bit by looking at an actual paper book instead of an electronic device. I spend so many of my waking hours staring at some kind of screen.
And now I must make a point of visiting the library more often. It’s one thing to be a frequent patron, but you can do that without ever stepping foot inside the building. It’s a whole different experience to go in and take the time to really browse and see what the library has to offer.
That is part of my identity now, and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it. After one attempt at a master’s degree from 2001-2003 that didn’t end well, I’ve spent far too much time thinking about a do-over. Not in English, as I originally attempted, but in something else. One time, I was considering library science. Another time, it was instructional design. Then law (but only because I earned a paralegal certificate).
Thankfully, I kept putting it off. Maybe I wasn’t ready, despite feeling like it was unfinished business I needed to attend to. It never felt like the right time.
Early in June, I was at a banquet for the OSU Alumni Club of Franklin County. I was talking to an older woman sitting at my table who already had one master’s degree and was about to go back for another in a completely different field. That was the moment I decided it was time for me.
I’m in my 40s now. What am I waiting for?
I reached my one-year anniversary at my job later that month, which made me eligible for tuition assistance. I was already casually looking at master’s programs in marketing, which is my current field (and one I’ve been interested in all along, but it took a long time to wedge my foot in the door). Then I found out the Columbus chapter of the American Marketing Association (of which I’m a member through work) had a partnership with Franklin University for a 20% tuition discount on the Marketing & Communication program.
Without second-guessing myself, without overthinking, I applied. I figured I’ve already been thinking about getting a master’s degree for 18 years. Any barriers to doing so were being created in my own mind. I jumped through the hoops at Franklin University and at work, getting everything squared away to make this happen. Again, just doing it. Not wondering if I’m being ridiculous. Not questioning if this was worth my time.
So, here I am. The second week of classes is coming to an end. So far, so good. It’s a vastly different experience than I had the last time, but that’s for the best. I’m older now and wiser.
My expected completion date is August 2021. I take a moment each day to envision walking onstage at graduation to get that diploma and hood.
I will do this. I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of my life dreaming about it. It’s time to make it a reality.
My brother, Marcus, is an ultrarunner. He has finished (and not finished) several long-distance trail runs over the past decade or so, with the maximum distance being 100 miles.
Two weeks ago, he came back to Ohio to run the Mohican Trail 100. Mohican is a special place for us. We went there frequently as kids. So, I understood why this run was important to him. He attempted it in 2015 and didn’t finish. The weather conditions made the trails treacherous, and he was concerned about injuring himself and being unable to do another 100-mile race later the summer.
So, why am I writing about this? Well, it has some applications to life outside of running.
I was part of his crew for this most recent run. It was me, our mom, our aunt, and my husband. I have never crewed before. None of us had, except my Mom (Mohican 2015). My sister-in-law, Marcus’ wife, was also on the crew during the daytime hours, but she paced him at night during the worst part of things. Just calling her crew really does her a disservice, but she was there. And she is experienced at crewing, which helped us a lot.
Let me tell you, it’s WORK. If you have never crewed an ultrarunner, well, here’s a brief summary of how that works:
You haul the runner’s gear to every aid station you have access to. This means a cooler filled with whatever they choose for nourishment, and a bag filled with extra shoes, clothes, anti-chafe products, etc. You do this AROUND THE CLOCK. The runners don’t stop, so neither do you. You check at each aid station to see what food they have available there, in case your runner wants pizza or a cup of hot broth.
There is a lot of waiting at the aid stations. You watch runners get medical treatment (and sometimes leave in ambulances). You cheer for other runners as they come in. And when your runner comes in, you get them whatever they need to keep going – a bottle of Ensure, a grilled cheese sandwich, a leg massage. And above all, you stay positive and encouraging. It’s a mental game even more than a physical one.
And because things aren’t hard enough, we got torrential rain overnight. Bad for the runners. Bad for the crew (because parking wasn’t always right by the aid station, flooding was widespread, and keeping his gear dry was a challenge). Bad for everyone.
To make a long story short, he finished. The rain made the trails slick and muddy. There was poor visibility throughout the night. He told us that he could hear trees falling somewhere in the forest during the night, so conditions were even dangerous. His clothes and shoes were soaked through. Hypothermia was a very real possibility. The conditions slowed him down enough to where we were concerned he wouldn’t finish by the cut-off time (32 hours). But he pushed through, and he picked up the pace when daylight came. He needed that finish.
Pure grit and determination.
That’s the takeaway from this.
I’m not a runner. I couldn’t even run around the block unless I was being chased by a machete-wielding maniac. But watching him finish was a victory for us, his crew, as much as it was for him. We were all invested.
And now I have my own long-distance run (metaphorically speaking) to finish. I’m starting grad school in the fall. This is my second attempt at grad school. I didn’t finish the first. I’m not going to get into the reasons for that – a lot of it was beyond my control.
But this time, I will finish. And I have a support system to cheer me on and push me forward. I can even visualize my graduation day. I need to keep that vision in my head. Eyes on the prize.
I wonder, at this point in my life, if I’m too tired to do this. If I’m too busy to do this. I feel overwhelmed a lot of the time with adult responsibilities, and now I’m piling on another one.
Grit and determination. If ultrarunners can get through what seem like insurmountable obstacles to get to the finish line, I can surely do this.