Thirty years ago I had an epiphany. It was March of 1990 and I was in the middle of my second semester at West Chester University. My goal at the time was to major in education and, eventually, go on to teach young, impressionable minds about the only subjects I truly cared about: guitar and music.
Before we go any further, allow me to give you a little back story:
I had already graduated high school three years prior to this revelation but things didn’t turn out the way that I planned. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved music, but back then all I wanted to do was be the next Eddie Van-Halen. I knew that was something that wasn’t going to hapen overnight, so I decided to enroll at Penn State University in the Fall of 1987 as a music major.
I had no money set aside for school and my parents, who’d recently divorced, had no means of helping to fund my education either. So I applied for grants and took out loans. Quite a few loans if you really want to know. I was told at the time I wouldn’t have to worry about paying them back, at least not until six months after I’d finished school. It was almost too good to be true. I’d be rich and famous by then.
Most of my tuition for that first semester was covered by loans, and the people at the bank were kind enough to give me plenty of extra money as well. Checks made out to James Wood rolled into the bursar’s office faster than cars at a Chik-fil-A drive-thru, and every day I’d sneak down to the office in between classes to see if another one had arrived. Ones that were supposed to be set aside for schooling but instead I used to buy important things, like guitars and amps and treating my friends to coffee and cheese french fries at the local Perkins. I went to school three times a week, didn’t have to work and the money continued to roll in. I was living the life, or so I thought. Don’t believe me? Here’s an entry from a journal I kept back in 1987:
By November, I was getting pretty tired of going to school. I just wanted to rock, and there was no one who could tell me otherwise or point me in the right direction. I dropped out of Penn State and spent most of 1988 working odd jobs while trying and failing, often miserably, at starting a band.
One day I received a letter in the mail informing me that, since I was no longer enrolled in college, the funds from my student loans would have to be repaid. The bill had come due. Not just for all the classes I dropped, but for all those guitars, amps and five-star meals I’d consumed. I needed a way out and fast.
I decided to attend the local community college with an emphasis on music education and an eventual transfer to West Chester University. This worked out well for me in two ways: First, it put the money I already owed on the back burner again. Second, and even more importantly, it allowed me to continue to take out more loans for tuition while pocketing the rest. By August of 1999 and my first semester at West Chester, I was already looking at some serious debt, and I was not even twenty-years-old.
“This is going to be worth it,” I assured myself.
Which leads me back to the ephipany of 1990 and to when I’d once again pretty much given up on college. Sure, I was going through the motions, but I wasn’t paying attention in class and was driving home almost every weekend. One day two of my roomates who, unlike me, had just finished studying, asked if I wanted to join them for a night out. When I reached into my pocket to see what funds were available, I fished out a single dollar bill and thirty-seven cents worth of loose change. It was all the money I had to my name. I reluctanly told them I’d have to pass.
That’s when I had the epiphany. Even though I’d given it the old college try, school just wasn’t going to be for me. I had to face the inevitable and do the one thing I hated most in life….. find and keep a job.
I decided to drop out of West Chester. Well, let me rephrase that, I didn’t actually drop out of school. I abandonded it. Yep, I packed my things, drove home and never went back. Eventually received the report card stating I had received all “F’s,” save for an English II course where the instructor was kind enough to put down a WP (withdrawl passing) for me. I would wind up spending the next ten years slowly making payments on my loan while working as a garbage man and pharmacy technician. I did try going back to community college in the mid-nineties and, although grateful my loan payments were again put on hiatus, once again never finished more than just a few courses.
Around the turn of the century (still blows my mind to say that) I decided to change careers and enrolled at the now defunct Allentown Business School where I received a quick diploma in Information Technology and have spent the better part of the last twenty years resetting passwords. Yes, I do a LOT more than that but don’t want to bore you with tech stuff. It took more than a dozen years but I even managed to pay back every penny I owed in student loans.
Recently, I had another epiphany. My daughter, now a high school graduate herself, enrolled at the same community college I attended. As I looked over her schedule it got me thinking about all the classes I’d taken over the years and how much I’d left on the table. All the money I spent on education, guitars and meals that went absolutely nowhere. Having not thought about such things for the longest time, I decided to find out what classes I had.
I started by logging onto the community college’s website and viewed my transcript. I was suprised to find that I had accumulated 51 credits in subjects ranging in everything from psychology and music to French and philosophy. This led me to check West Chester’s website where I discovered more than a dozen more I’d earned.
With newfound curiosity I decided to reach out to an advisor at the community college to see what this hodgepodge of classes might get me in terms of a degree… any degree… and how fast it could get me there. After reviewing everything I’d given her, the woman I spoke with told me that if I took an environmental science course over the winter and four other courses in Spring (English II, Developmental Psychology, Environmental Sustainability and Nature of Mathematics) I would earn an Associate in Arts Degree in General Studies and graduate in May of 2021. What’s more, all of the required courses could be taken completely online at my convenience, so it wouldn’t interfere with my current job.
So, guess what I’m doing after more than thirty years? …. I’m going back to school. It is an idea as frightening as it is thrilling.
What do I intend to do with this degree? I’m so glad you asked. Because that was the same thing the advisor wanted to know when I told her I wanted one as quickly as possible.
Initially, she asked me what prompted a 51-year-old man to consider a career change, noting that my answer would be crucial in determining which courses I should enroll in.
“If your goal is to move on to a four-year college and become a teacher,” she said, “you’ll definitely want to make sure you cover your education requirements.”
“I have no intention of becoming a teacher or even changing careers,” I told her. “I enjoy what I do.”
“Then why would you want to get a degree at this stage of your life?” she asked, curiously.
I thought about high school and the three colleges I attended. The classes I took, the guitars I bought, the meals I ate and the loans that were now long paid off. I was grateful to finally be in a position where I wouldn’t have to worry about taking out any more of them. Then I smiled.
“I want it for me,” I said.