Sunday, October 25, 2009

Not So Trivial Pursuit

chasing the Bachelor degree...continued

Now that I had the resolve to finish my Bachelor degree, I had to figure out how. Again, this was the third go at it – the previous two tries were limited to in-person attendance at a school and the necessary funds to pay for them. Two things I had little of were money and time. Now as I sought out a program, I was no more advantaged with money or time – but swift winds of change had brought about technological development – the internet. Fortunately, I had always been close to technological developments and I was very well-suited for internet-based offerings. Traditional universities had evolved to offer online classes and the possibility of completing a program in this way. It was the only feasible way for me, I thought, as a person with a family and full-time job. Finding a Bachelor program that could be completed through online classes without paying exorbitant tuition was a challenge. Sadly, in-state and out-of-state tuition levels exist even for online programs, which one would think would cross state or international boundary lines. Online classes were not just a convenient option for traditional students who did not or could not appear in a live class, they brought possibilities to untold numbers of people who could not attend classes due to a number of reasons. But that is a paper I wrote for a class…

Might I add that naturally, my search for this program was done exclusively online – a good indication that online programs can work for you – if you are already adept and comfortable with internet usefulness.

Let me tell you that when your criteria is a Bachelor program that can be completed all online, with in-state tuition, you have narrowed your search considerably – in fact, it narrowed to two options for me. Usually people choose a major or program according to interests or job-related skills. In my case, further consideration had to be given to the 100+ credit hours already in my possession from the four full years + a summer at LSU. Not to mention that many of the credits were in Architecture, Art and Design which would normally only apply to a similar degree. Program choices were becoming mighty slim.

My first attempt to start back to school in an online program was with UNT – University of North Texas. This was largely due to the program offerings they had posted on their website, which included a degree in Training. Having spent numerous years in Training and support, this was very appealing.

Alas, it was not to be. Just because a school offers an online program and classes does not mean they are evolved enough to understand how to apply it or make it work for the people who need them. The bad vibes started right away, when I contacted the counselor assigned to me alphabetically by my last name. I sent an email to this person – time went by – no response. I called and left messages – turning back to older technology. No response. I contacted another counselor for a different alphabetic grouping. That person did respond but couldn’t do the work for his fellow counselor.

Amazingly, I was simply trying to find out what classes from LSU could apply and what classes I needed to start. I had already applied and been accepted to UNT – sure, that process was easy because it involved taking my money. But I ran into wall after wall of zero information and incompetence at every turn. The counselor never ever contacted me. With further searching by phone all over campus, I talked to someone in the College of Education, which included the online program I sought. This person in an administrative position in the college informed me – a full-time working single mom with 3 kids – that it is a UNT requirement to appear on campus for a day of “Transfer Student Orientation” to even be evaluated for the classes needed. When I explained (incredulously) that I’d have to take a day of vacation from work to drive up to Denton and sit around on campus JUST to be able to register for classes and that this did not seem reasonable for an online program, the administrator very rudely snapped “well, that is what most people expect to do when they decide to go back to school”. End of conversation as far I was concerned. The writing was on the wall – even if I did continue to go by their inane rules and start their program, I was going to be hurdling one giant obstacle after another. UNT was a school of people completely out of touch with the real world, like so many other institutions of education. I knew from experience from the college my kids were attending that it was possible to find a university with a professional, respectful attitude towards students.

This time, I was not a kid – I was a grown adult that had carried many responsibilities for decades and I was working for every dollar in my income. Excuse me, but I am not going to be blown away by the condescending arrogance of out-of-touch education administrators. In case you think I sound like a rebel with a history of fighting authority, quite the contrary. I very simply had a realistic view that I wanted a quality product for the thousands of dollars I was about to spend. Incompetence and unanswered promises were not going to be acceptable for me.

What a shame – UNT had what appeared to be a fine online program – in print, anyway – but absolutely no clue how to administer it and make it feasible for real people. They certainly were not interested in my worldly perspective on the subject either. I had wasted a good summer semester in this pursuit – but it was yet another stepping stone on the path of finding the answer. The $40 I had paid for application to UNT just became a contribution to their coffers.

Time to cut bait and move on.

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…