1 STARTING POINT
Shortly after high school, I completed cosmetology school as I attempted to follow my father’s footsteps. However, after about a year of trying to become a successful stylist and build a clientele, my life took a very different turn. I unexpectedly became a mother to twins. Not surprisingly, the schedule of a beautician did not quite align with single motherhood. So I had to revisit my career options. I decided to waitress while I took some time to put together a new plan.
I wanted a professional job that would align with daycare and preschool, and that required a college education. I had to support my children and myself while I went to school, and I had to pay for this education myself. So I started my college route at the community college. I wasn’t sure which career I wanted, and I didn’t just want to jump into a degree path when I didn’t know whether or not it I would like that career. The community college was more affordable than the university. It was also close to home and offered the same general education courses the university did, so I would be able to transfer smoothly to the university. I could also take courses that weren’t in a specific degree program to find out if I would like them or not. I didn’t want to pay the higher university tuition for a class if I wasn’t committed to the career path.
During my childhood, my family struggled financially. They made poor choices with their income and had a very naïve view toward college. In some ways, I believed that they thought college was a waste of money. They frowned on me for pursuing post-secondary education and tried to make it seem like I wasn’t smart enough or that the workload would eventually make me quit. However, I considered it an investment in myself and worth my time to learn and grow. So I was careful about student loans. I borrowed just enough to cover tuition and books and kept a full-time entry-level job to pay all my other expenses.
My academic experience in college was very different from high school. The only things in common were the presence of teachers and homework. In high school, there was just one building and the schedule was pretty well set. I arrived half awake at 7:15. Then I switched classes a handful of times throughout the day with a lunch slot around 10:30. The end of the day was signaled by a bell ring at 3:15 in time to catch the school bus home.
Homework was the reassuring part. I either took home worksheets or handouts to finish up from class or had short narrative to write on the outcome of an in-class science experiment. By just doing the homework, I was able to earn a B average. Generally, quizzes and tests were open book and most teachers offered extra credit. I typically completed all the extra credit to offset my poor test grades from test anxiety.
High school teachers were pretty easy-going, and they all followed a similar teaching standard, the one that the school district adhered to. As long as I completed and turned in what the teacher assigned, I was good to go. If I struggled with the material, I had access to one-on-one help from the teacher or a student resource lab. There was a few in-class opportunities for student teamwork. This was typically “grade your neighbor’s essay” or “put together a small presentation.” This was a great introduction to team work.
I admit I was a nerd in high school. I still am a nerd. For now, I’ll spare myself embarrassment and save the stories of lacking common sense for later. But I wasn’t the most popular girl nor did I make class Valedictorian. I had the “girl next door” look with the reputation of being “book smart.”
At the community college, the academics were more challenging, my schedule was based on courses, and there were multiple buildings on campus. The teachers weren’t always as accessible or helpful. My new fellow students came from many different backgrounds. All of this created a very different student life, one that was strange to me.
After the administrative work of being admitted to the community college was done, I registered for part-time night courses. There was no way I could have handled a full-time course load while caring for twin infants and working an entry-level day position. The addition of two long nights of classes a week to my schedule was a stretch, but I couldn’t just take one class at a time because student loans required at least two courses per semester. While it did take twice as long to complete a typical two-year plan, my grades and future would have been at risk if I had tried to take more classes.
College classes differed in scheduling because they typically only met twice a week for a about an hour. This was just long enough for a lecture followed by a few questions. Teachers typically didn’t have time after class for one-on-one help, but they offered some help during their office hours. The coursework was more in-depth and was subject to more rigorous grading criteria. I was introduced to a new document called a course syllabus. This was my guide sheet for every course because it listed due dates for homework and projects, and when quizzes and exams were. It showed how course grades were assigned, usually based on possible points for the course requirements. Unfortunately, homework was only worth half the possible points. The remaining points were from participation, research papers, group projects and exams. The days of worksheets that I was comfortable with were over. And there was no extra credit here, so there went the cushion for my grade.
How I planned my time to complete the homework, do the research and study for exams was up to me. I found out during the first semester that I was terrible at taking exams, now that exams were no longer open book, and my exam scores showed it. I could explain the material to the instructor and work through an array of problems on the white board. But when I took exams, my scores were barely passing and inconsistent. So I had to develop test-taking skills. I found that most textbooks offered online application exercises and practice exams. These resources also came in very handy for when the instructor was unavailable or weather caused campus to be closed.
I also learned that there are people who can memorize just enough material to pass the test and move on to the next course. But I didn’t want that for me. As intimidating as those fellow students were at times, I reassured myself that everyone learns differently and at different rates. I used to doubt myself and was unsure about my ability to learn because it took me longer to read and understand different concepts. But I wanted to understand. So I started taking notes on the material I wasn’t confident about and spent some additional studying it. This really helped expand my mind and ultimately become a strength for me, especially when I prepared lengthy essays.
College professors were very different too. These professors had flexibility in how they taught their course. There wasn’t a district standard, but a few accreditation guidelines to adhere to. They could change the pace of the course and the material they covered to better fit where the students are. In addition, they either made their owns exams or modified one from a test bank. These professors were not only college-degreed; most of them held professional day jobs in their fields of study and only taught evening classes because that fit into their schedule. There weren’t too many full-time professors.
Then there were different personalities and teaching styles. This was a new and different perspective for me. I was weak at catching onto social cues as it was, so this made it more of a challenge. I had to adapt to their ways of teaching and develop a rapport with them and a comfort with their teaching styles. As the semesters progressed, I found that some professors were easy- going and open to endless questions. Of course, there were a few that mumbled or had illegible handwriting but insisted on using a whiteboard, which made for some additional challenges. (It definitely made me wonder if this was one of the reasons Microsoft Word was invented.) It was still up to me to do the work for my success in each course.
By the time I completed the first semester, the shock of the schedule had become easier. For the courses that were more difficult for me, I used any and all the student resources that I could. As I progressed through the coursework, I quickly learned to prioritize my work and manage my time. Most of my time outside of class was filled with research and studying. I had started to swim instead of sink.
Although the community college was very different from high school, it wasn’t too difficult. It was a lot of accountability and growing for me. I was responsible for commuting to campus and making sure I was taking the right courses. It gave me enough time and structure to grow from a teenager to a young adult.