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Back to School: Reinvent Yourself


 Back in the 80's Rodney Dangerfield starred in the movie "Back to School" about a self-made millionaire and entrepenuer that decided to enroll with his freshman son played by Keith Gordon.   The premise is an amusing tale of a successful business man, who never graduated high school, trying to reinvent himself and connect with his frustrated son on the verge of dropping out.  In the real world going back to school is far from easy.  In fact, it is so challenging that many cannot find the motivation to start back into something that was seemingly finished years ago.  The chasm that must be crossed is intimidating.  It is what my father always teaches his students about . . . Reinventing Yourself.

Twenty years ago, when I graduated from engineering school, I found a good job, and soon enrolled in a Master's program.  I felt at the time, that if I didn't go back, that I never would.  Four years later, married, with a son, and one on the way, I graduated.  Attending school in the evenings for 32 credit hours took almost as long as attending college full time for 124, but I finished it with pride.

Fifteen years later, after about six months of research into a new field of interest, I applied, registered, purchased books, and started attending class once again.  Much like Dangerfield's movie, I found myself to be the oldest person in a forty seat class.  My department manager at work allowed me to take a course that met during the afternoon, twice a week.  This type of schedule has been unorthodox to say the least because of the time away from work.  It has been a time-management undertaking. 

So there I sat, in the front row, notebook in hand, amongst thirty-nine other students that were just a couple of years older than my son.   Not only was I the "old man" in the room, I was dressed in  my normal "mill-style" consisting of work boots, old jeans, long underwear, and a flannel shirt; a real professional.  My own mother doesn't even think I work as an engineer let alone a whole class of youngsters who didn't know a thing about me.  What could I do? I would never have time to change my clothes four times a day to look the part of a student.  Most of the time I don't say much, but once in a while, like Dangerfield, I can't help but make a comment or ask a question about the "practical" aspects of the subject at hand

Amazingly enough, the transition to becoming a student again wasn't as hard as I thought.  The normal tasks of taking notes, studying the text, preparing for exams, and completing projects came back to me quickly.  The hard part was balancing the time between needs of school, work, teaching, and family.  I have the utmost respect for working students who drive onward for years to obtain their degrees and certificates while holding down a full-time job and raising a family.

The four-year stint that most full-time students endure takes six to ten years for a working adult to complete.  Along the way families still have needs, and careers make overwhelming demands on schedules that conflict with rigid class schedules and deadlines.  I don't want to paint a bleak picture of how difficult this journey can be, but I would be lying if I made it out to be a cake walk.  In order to be successful there are a few things that a working professional should consider before undertaking continued education:

1)  Do you have the time to take the classes, study, and get the best grades possible?
2)  Do you have the money or a financial support benefit from work to cover the costs involved?
3)  Will your spouse and/or family support your time commitments?
4)  Will your work schedule allow you to attend class at least 80% of the time?
5)  Have you prepared yourself for the coursework you are going to undertake?

Don't underestimate the details when you answer these questions, since none of them are trivial, especially #3 and #4.  Without the support from your family and your superiors at work, you will not be permitted to succeed.  Also, beware of co-workers whose jealousy of your efforts to improve yourself make you feel like crab in a barrel.

Interstingly enough, my brother, father, and even my mother, and I went back to school later in life to receive advanced degrees.  All of us did this while raising families and building our careers.  Each of us did for a specific reason, to reinvent ourselves.  That is exactly what working professionals are doing when they go back to school.  Dangerfield's Thorton Mellon, through all of the antics, and specialists doing his homework (including Kurt Vonnegut), reinvented himself through education while forging a new relationship with his son.   Hollywood  can make it look oh so convinient, but with solid determination, it can be done.  After all of the hard work, you will value the accomplishment all that much more.

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