Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stuff catches up to you...eventually

I was inspired to recount this journey after talking to a woman at work today who was completing a college degree. She was, like me, well past her traditional college age years...

Between Fall 2006 and December 2008 I spent all of my “spare” time pursuing the completion of a Bachelor degree. I say “spare” time because I had a family and a full-time job outside the home. Although I attended college for 4 complete years + 1 summer in the traditional timeframe after graduating high school, I had changed my major, which required an extra year to complete the program. Life, at the time, opened up a big sinkhole for me to drive into, and I never did return to finish that program or get the piece of paper. That hung over my head for (X) number of decades.

There were attempts to correct this travesty in subsequent years: I enrolled at UTD in 1985 and had just gotten a few weeks into that pursuit when a job promotion came along. It was a good promotion: I was the first female District Sales Manager in my company. And, lucky me! My territory was north Texas and Oklahoma…in the late 1980s!! Um, ring a bell? That’s when the bottom fell out of our economy…but I digress. The job promotion required being on the road 3-4 days per week. This was “back in the day” when all classes were in a brick and mortar format, requiring actual physical – and mental – attendance. As I was already reeling from the debit and credit ledger concept in my Accounting class and had not successfully logged into the campus lab computer for my COBOL class (does that date me or what) I was all too happy to abandon my degree completion plan yet again for what looked to be immediate career progress. At least a few times I thought to myself “who needs a degree to do well in a career”.

Well, let’s see…a few more life sinkholes later…and after voluntarily and happily spending eight years as a stay-at-home parent, I found myself at the bottom of the workworld food chain. I’m talking krill here. If there is something that plankton feeds on, that would be about the right level. It’s as if all of my previous work experience, accomplishments and skills didn’t exist…all for naught. Starting over in what I considered a job “beneath my talent level”, I knew that it was nonetheless necessary for income, insurance and survival for me and my 3 kids. I recall having an attitude that sadly must have been discernible to others: “wait a minute, I was the first female District Sales Manager for my company, organized countless training classes and escorted many fledgling sales reps into the unknown, scary domain of military bases and corporate accounts all over the US and Puerto Rico. I have written more training material than you can imagine – surely you must recognize and appreciate my potential!” I was actually told by the condescending assistant manager that I worked with: “you are paid to do tasks, not to think”.

Thus began my journey of discovery that yes, the world has people who are not particularly attuned to my past career experience and project management wizardry. Think “Private Benjamin”. I was, figuratively speaking, relegated to clean the latrine with my electric toothbrush.

Fast forward – at a grindingly excruciating snail’s pace – to eight years later, where I had evolved up the work food chain a few notches to the status of “small tadpole in a large pond”. The fight had not been completely beaten out of me yet – I had managed to survive some aggressive attempts to wipe out my species, but I still expected to be progressing to ever-expanding career opportunities every 18 months or so, like it was before I dropped off the face of the work world to stay at home. During the five years that I waited to arrive at the next level, I had a discussion with my boss’ manager. These discussions were arranged to facilitate communication in an upwardly direction, and possibly to give some insight for higher level managers to develop empathy towards the lowly creatures of their domain. It was during this discussion that the moment of resolution arrived for me.

My co-workers collectively held their breath when I talked to this manager, who was well-established as one who ruled with an iron fist approach. A two-way conversation could be construed in his mind as “backtalk” from an unworthy knave. I bravely mentioned some issues that I incorrectly perceived he would be interested in, such as career path development for the employees. I suggested that it’s difficult to get promotions in the department, to which he responded defensively that the newsletter was full of promotion announcements. Sure, people in other areas or moving from one hourly job to another. It was no use continuing the discussion. But at that moment I decided I was going to look around for a job outside the company.

Long story short, again I found out that my past work glory, I mean, experience didn’t seem to count any more. For almost every job of interest, a Bachelor degree was a minimum requirement. Guess what? I hit a ceiling… choices made in my earlier life caught up with me. I couldn’t move on without this piece of paper. And so, with the knowledge gained from getting my firstborn child into college, I set out to find a program for myself. The year was 2006, 29 years after I first went off to college.

All that to tell the story about how I decided to return to school to finish a degree. How I went through that process is another story! …or two…or three…

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