Editing My Own Story: Going Back to School at 36 Changed My Life

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I was 36 when I decided that I didn’t want to do what I was doing any more, and certainly not every day for the rest of my working life.

As I considered my options, I knew that nothing had really felt right since the day almost 20 years earlier, when I held a letter from the dean of my selective journalism program, regretting to inform me that I had to pick another major due to my poor academic performance.

I’d gotten to college and had been distracted by a social life. I was overwhelmed by large classes and lots of freedom. My grades plummeted, and I lost my slot in the very selective admission program that had been my lifelong dream.

I decided eventually that if I couldn't be a journalist, then a career in the helping professions was a workable option. I got a master’s degree in counseling, ending up as a counselor and professor in a large community college.

Fast forward to 36. While I had always loved teaching, and felt that I could empathize with students because of missteps in my own academic career, I stopped feeling fulfilled by my job.

I began to feel way more invested in the freelance work as a web writer that I’d picked up than I was with my day job. The end of a long-term relationship had left me feeling at loose ends personally. I was craving a more creative, productive life, and completely unsure about how to attain it. I didn’t have a game plan.

I don’t know whether it was in the shower or driving to work or in yoga class, but one day it suddenly came to me: I was going to go back to J-school and finish this thing.

I knew the cons. I had very limited financial resources. I had a full-time job. I had bills. I had no time to devote to a demanding academic program and to my job at the same time. I applied anyway.

I had to challenge myself to re-take the required GRE; investigate my financial options; and ask mentors and employers for letters of reference. But I just kept putting one more application form in front of the other, and eventually it was done.

Three months after my flash of clarity, I’d arranged a leave of absence from work, wrangled financial support, and was sitting in my intro writing and editing classes, in the same building where I’d studied years before.

I had no idea how it happened, and especially so quickly, but what I can tell you is this: Once I started, I never looked back. This was mostly because I was just too busy -- but also because from the first day, I knew I was in the right place, even when it was difficult.

Once in school, I said yes to everything I was offered. As a returning student, I had sacrificed significant stability and my income to pursue this, because I knew it was that important for me to follow what I loved and to express my best talents. It was my commitment and financial and time investment now, so I owned it fully.

Unlike the first time around, I went to every class. I took every opportunity I could, and as a result, I learned on a level I never really had before in school. I was the oldest person in my class by at least 20 years, but I got to know my classmates anyway, and some of them remain my closest friends. (I tell them what to do in their 20s, so they won’t have to worry about it in their 40s, like I did. They tolerate this because they are nice people.)

I also got to travel to places I wouldn’t have had access to on my own. I ended up crawling through a ditch by the side of the road outside Hanoi, reporting a story on industrial growth in Vietnam.
I roamed Invesco Field as a reporter when then-Senator Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president. I still can’t believe that happened to me, but it did.

Operation Smile mission Hanoi

I finished a master’s program in online journalism in 18 months. My graduation day was one of the happiest of my life. Earning my degree has been my favorite professional accomplishment, because I worked the hardest for it, and cared about it the most.

Many people ask me why I chose to go back to school, since I had a master’s already. I've been told that I could have worked my way into an online journalism career with my blogging and social media contacts alone. This may be true, but earning the credential was important to me.

For one thing, I still traced my basic confusion and dissatisfaction with my professional path to my failure to complete the journalism program almost 20 years ago. Short of time travel, returning was the best way to correct a situation that had always bothered me, regardless of my successes since then.

A master’s degree in journalism also qualifies me to teach in a community college setting. I already knew I loved teaching, and I was pretty sure I'd love it even more in a discipline I care about as much as writing.

And finally, I knew that making this change required a major shift. I wasn’t sure committing to that change was possible if I stayed at work, and hacked away at it part-time. As an educator, I am also very much a student, and I knew it was the right move for me.

I resumed my day job after I got my degree. But I left for good last year to run my own business. Returning to work in an office full-time never really worked out for me. It was like trying to stuff clothes back into a suitcase after vacation.

J-school graduation

Today, I work at least the equivalent of one full-time job as a one-woman writing, editing, social-media-managing machine. I also teach and advise at my old institution, to supplement my income and to keep my head in the academic game. I believe in pursuing dreams, but not burning bridges, and in keeping stable options open as I experiment.

I have never worked this hard in my life, nor felt more intellectually or professionally energized. I respond remarkably well to working in a virtual community of other entrepreneurs and creative types. Every day is different, and while some days are a challenge, it’s been a resoundingly positive year.

I had a choice that wasn’t really a choice at all, looking back, because I had to change or stay stuck. I’m grateful that I had the motivation and resources to actively envision a better, more appropriate life for myself, to give myself the best chances for success, and to take the chance when it came down to it.

I can't recommend it enough.

As I have learned from personal experience, education has the power to change your life. And there are so many options for going back to school. Kaplan, a global company dedicated to helping individuals achieve their educational and career goals, knows how to make a change. Kaplan wasn't satisfied with how the educational system was working, so for 75 years they have been re-writing the rules because they believe education is not one size fits all. A system focused on individual needs has the power to change lives. Kaplan uses technology to learn how you learn, to teach you better; they tailor classes around the needs of employers; and hire teachers with experience in their fields.

Kaplan wasn’t satisfied with the status quo, and you shouldn’t be either.

How can education give you the power to change?

This post is sponsored content from Kaplan University and BlogHer.

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