Lessons Learned as a Non-traditional (aka older) Transfer (aka product of a community college) Undergraduate Student
By Fanny Garcia
In 2009, after being laid off, I decided to go back to college. Since then, I have been on a roller coaster ride of emotions, academic setbacks and accomplishments, moments of sheer exhaustion and elation, and copious amounts of learning. I do not regret my choice at all. In fact, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. However, just because it has been good, does not mean it has been easy. Below are ten of the most important lessons I learned in the five years since I began my second chance at a college education.
1. The choice to return to school is a hard one. College costs are expensive and most of these costs will come out of your pocket. When I got laid off, my biggest worry was not having steady income. I’d had a job since I was thirteen and suddenly I was going to live the student life? It seemed irresponsible somehow. But it wasn’t. I saw returning to school as an investment in the dreams I’d put on hold for too long. Even so, it was still scary and no matter how many times people tell you that you can do it, and that it will be fine – you won’t know how true this is until you go through it. In the mean time, just believe all the cheering you get from your friends and family. You are going to need it for all those times when you want to quit.
2. Quitting. Yes, you will want to quit and you will feel guilty about wanting to quit. But how realistic is that? The job market sucks. You have already invested two, three, four (ok, maybe more) years at community college. What else is there? Stay on target. Evidence of your strength comes when you do not quit. Do. Not. Quit. It will get better. The first few months of university level education are the hardest. You will find your way to calmer waters.
3. Nobody cares what you did before you got to the university. All the work you did before in whatever profession you were skilled in will seem like it does not have much value at the university. All your struggles? The impoverished conditions you had to survive to make it to higher education? Academia insists that these stories are a dime a dozen. Not because they are not important but because there are so many stories like yours. Every story unique. Every one of them personal. Every story with a tremendous amount of value. What matters to academia is how you can take the experiences you had in the real world and apply it to the theory and scholarship that you want to study. How can your experiences help us understand the world around us better? What can you contribute? Don’t let the institution diminish your worth. Be proud of your experiences, value them for yourself and for your community, but it is the new knowledge you produce because of those experiences that “matters” at the university level.
4. Grades DO matter. Your peers and even professors will tell you that the grades you get on an assignment do not matter. While this may be true for students with the financial means to get a college education without needing loans or scholarships, for all others, good grades means money.
Here are some reasons why good grades do matter:
1.) Grades on in-class assignments accumulate and inform the more important overall class grade.
2.) The overall class grade matters because it counts towards your Grade Point Average.
3.) A high GPA opens up opportunities to better financial aid packages, scholarships, grants, and graduate school programs.
Professors tell you that the grade does not matter because what is most important is that you understand the concepts he or she teaches. However, if you want to reduce the amount of debt you leave school with and/or want to apply to graduate school, be mindful of your grades.
Some people will read this and think that you should have learned this in high school, but unfortunately, the education system in the U.S. graduates many students without strong orientation on higher education. I was one of those students so this lesson only came when I was already at UCLA. It’s never too late to learn.
5. The Impostor Syndrome is real. Many students will feel as if maybe the university they were accepted into made an error. Maybe you will get a letter in the mail saying, “Sorry! Your acceptance was a big, huge mistake.” You are not alone and this syndrome does not really go away. You just learn to manage it. Force yourself to internalize your accomplishments. No matter how big or small, your accomplishments have the same value. Even if you think that you worked hard on some or not at all on others, they all matter. They are the fruits of your labor. Your work is the product of your life, the life of your community and your field.
6. Learn how to balance the books and your social life. Don’t get stuck in the books. Manage your time well enough so that you get to see your friends and family as well. This is tough to do with the constant pressure of deadlines for assignments, midterms, finals and other projects. However, humans are social beings. Yes, even if you are an introvert. You still need contact with others. My first two quarters at UCLA were consumed by academics. I rarely saw my loved ones. I was determined to get straight As but I never did when I studied the most. It was only when I made time for friends and family but still stayed on top of my schoolwork that the As started to happen.
7. Sometimes your academic mentors will not be those at the university where you go to school. Don’t be afraid to reach out to professors at other universities in the U.S. or internationally. Often the ones at your university are more like your bosses. The hierarchy is too evident. Reaching out to professors in the same field that you are studying but at other universities will generate more leads and assistance because they will not see you as a subordinate, or an employee. They will see you as a colleague, someone interested in creating new knowledge. Always do your homework and find out their field of interest before contacting them. A simple Internet search can generate a lot of information. Find out if your university has their book. Read any journal articles they have published. Email them first, then you can ask if you can call them. It is also ok to approach them at conferences, or talks.
8. You don’t have to read everything. You have to read 20 novels in 10 weeks? That’s it? No problem! It’s great if you read everything (and this will probably generate some brownie points from the professor) but it’s not essential all the time. What is most important is that you understand the course curriculum. What does your professor want you to learn? Why did he choose the novels or books he assigned? What do they have in common? A close reading of the class syllabus will help a great deal in solving this puzzle. Also, do not tell your professor that you have not read something – they know. They always know. So, read everything. Is this contradictory? Yes, yes it is. When strapped for time, you have to choose what to read and what not to read. Taking a Milton class but your specialty is Jane Austen and you’re taking the classes in the same quarter? Read all of Austen but choose which of Milton’s works are most important for you to understand and pass the class with a good grade.
9. Access the resources available to you. If you receive a scholarship through your school’s scholarship resource center, chances are they may have tutors available to help you get through your classes. If you didn’t get scholarships, make sure to access your school’s tutoring centers. Writing centers are essential not just for students in the Humanities. Good writing skills will open many doors in school and when you enter the workforce. At some point, you will have to write letters, proposals for research, business plans, cover letters, etc. Writing and tutoring centers are academic and career lifesavers. Use them.
10. Get a therapist. In academia, you will encounter the best and the worst of humanity. You will be exposed to such creatures often referred to as Frenemies, Backstabbers, and Cutthroats. Most of these individuals will not have your best interests at heart. In fact, some may say, that they will want your failure served to them on a silver platter. No matter. For all these haters, you’ll also find mentors, friends, social justice activists and supporters who will see that your scholarship has value and will do whatever they can to make sure it gets funded, published, and acknowledged. We are human, however and oftentimes we only remember the bad things that happen in life. When this happens, and you need to get over an academic betrayal, see a therapist.
Here is a quote from writer Junot Diaz about therapy, “If you are a teacher in the public school system and you don’t have a therapist, there’s a serious problem. You all laugh, but if we were athletes, because we think of them as high earners, we want [them] to be on point in every way. An athlete gets a physical trainer, they get a massage therapist, they get a couple of therapists…teachers have to be treated the same way. You cannot be a person of color in this society and not have a therapist. You cannot be a woman in this society and not have a therapist. You can’t be a dude who’s been through masculinity and not have a therapist.”
In other words, everyone can benefit from therapy.
If all goes well, I will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in English in June 2015. After which comes a whole new set of questions and uncertainties – Gap year or grad school applications before graduation? Law school? East Coast, West Coast or somewhere in between? Peace Corps for two years or reenter the workforce? I don’t have all the answers but this first year at university has taught me that I don’t need to know everything. I just need to know that the possibilities are endless.
Good luck on your own journey and don’t forget to breathe.
Listen to writer Fanny Garcia speak about life as a transfer student at UCLA’s Daily Bruin radio show “Long Story Short” by clicking HERE