I guess the title of this post could just as easily be prefaced with another one: “Surprise! I never finished school” …since it’s not a fact many people know about me. Why would they?
I did go to college, at least. I entered college the same way I entered all other education— which is to say, I saw it as compulsory. There was a time as a kid when I thought college came after high school the same way that sixth grade came after fifth. I was a teenager before I was ever even introduced to the idea of someone intentionally not going to college. Like, by choice. It was as if someone had told me they’d decided not to pay taxes.
So my parents did it right, is the point. They instilled in me the importance of education. So, I went… because I knew it was the only way to land a fulfilling, high-paying job.
But then a funny thing happened in my second semester: I landed a fulfilling, high-paying job.
I did it by accident, and without a degree — without any premeditation at all, actually. It wasn’t in a field I would’ve pictured myself in, but I was good at it. (Or at least, I kept getting promoted.) And slowly but surely, school started to feel more like an impractical nuisance. A step in the process I had already leap-frogged. I took “a semester off” to focus on work… and, well, the rest is history.
Fast forward to last year, when the whole world was in lockdown. I was newly motivated by social justice — and in particular, the unique challenge of how to talk about it with people who don’t see it as an issue. I was so compelled by this challenge that I wrote a whole blog post basically denouncing my loved ones as racists.
And it worked! My friends and family read it and loved it. They woke up to the realities of institutional racism — not only in our criminal justice system, but in our entire country. Many reached out to me afterward to start a thoughtful dialogue about implicit bias. They came to understand their privilege, and are now pursuing antiracism work alongside me. They donate monthly to Black Lives Matter.
No, what really happened was that several cut me out of their lives completely, and the rest now tiptoe around me like an unpinned grenade. Whenever conversation veers toward even the faintest suggestion of inequality, their eyes grow wide and dart to me. Someone quickly changes the subject, lest I become unhinged and lash out again. (Someone once texted me a gif of Carlton from Fresh Prince… then followed it up with “Sorry, was that racist?” To which I replied, “What do you think racism is?”)
So, it turns out writing passive aggressive blog posts is not the way to change the world. But I’ve become compelled by antiracism work — which starts with cracking the nut of How To Talk To People About This. And that brings us back to school.
My first time around, I majored in English — a decision based more on my favorite subject than any calculated plans for my future. This time, at least, I had an idea of what I wanted to learn and why. I spent a Sunday afternoon dusting off my old transcripts and cross-referencing them with current degree requirements. I met with an academic advisor. I changed my major to Sociology. I enrolled at my local community college just two weeks before the start of the semester, and was on the waitlist for every single class. I sent groveling emails to each professor about how I was returning for the first time in a decade. They took pity on me, and my schedule filled up with 13 units.
And as the title of this post suggests, I did all this without telling anyone.
There were a couple of good reasons for secrecy: First, there was only a 50/50 chance I’d even follow through with this plan to begin with. After all, it had been a decade since I last stepped foot on a college campus. I wasn’t even sure I remembered how to study anymore. What if it was too hard?
Second, I wasn’t sure about my work finding out. They’d support me, of course, but sometimes my brain balks at the idea of support. I don’t need special accommodations, okay? I can balance a full course load and a full-time job entirely on my own — in fact, I can do it without my coworkers even knowing. (My therapist gently challenged me on this mindset, encouraging me to come clean to my boss… and I responded by ghosting him for a month. So yeah I’d say my brain is pretty healthy and well-adjusted, why?)
Lastly, though, was my mom. I knew that having a college dropout for a daughter was one of the great disappointments of her life. So, the idea of being able to spring this news on her retroactively — not as “I’m going back” but “I went back, and already earned a degree” — was thrilling.
So, I went, and I kept it secret from almost everyone all semester. (I finally cracked halfway through and told my best friends, partly just so I could share everything I was LEARNING. We would play Drunk History, where late into the evening I’d regale them with whatever awesome thing I’d been reading about that week… fueled by about 6 glasses of wine. There are videos. It’s not great.)
I was surprised by my own engagement level. I read every single chapter of every single textbook, a first in perhaps my entire academic life. I made it work for me: I downloaded textbooks onto my kindle, so my habit of reading while curling up under a blanket didn’t change much. I figured out how to project lectures onto my big screen TV, so even that wasn’t far from my usual Netflix experience. I slipped back into the rhythm of schoolwork more easily than I could have anticipated — and there was something undeniably fun about making flashcards and filling out my planner and color-coding my notes. I’d forgotten the quiet enjoyment of being a nerd.
More than that, though, school made me feel small again — in the best way, the way that being in nature sometimes makes me feel small. It’s a comfort to know the tiny place in the universe I occupy, in the grand scheme of things. But paradoxically, learning about sociology also makes me feel connected. I can trace my own lineage in the first wave of immigration to America. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling took place the year my mother was born. It’s all so intimate.
In any case, I got straight As. I earned the one Associates Degree I planned for, then accidentally qualified for another. (When I surprised my mom with this news on Christmas, I jokingly told her that two Associates Degrees totally equaled one Bachelor’s.)
And now comes the Bachelor’s. In the end I was accepted to two schools that could not have been more different from each other — San Diego State, where I began my academic career, and NYU, where I had applied as a 17-year-old and was rejected. One was down the street from me, the other across the country. One would require in-person instruction, the other was a program built entirely online for remote students. One I could (maybe, barely) afford on my own, the other cost half my annual salary per year.
Obviously, I chose SDSU — it’s the alma mater of the voice of Marge Simpson, after all.
And so starting tomorrow, I’ll be pursuing that thing most of my peers trotted off with a decade ago. Hilariously, I’ll be an Aztec right along side my baby sister earning her Master’s Degree.
I have since looped in my family and work. As predicted, they’re all very supportive. And I guess I’m writing this blog post partly because I want the support and the accountability. Over the next two years, I want people to ask me “Hey, didn’t you go back to school?” and I want to be able to tell them “Yes! I’m enrolled right now. It’s hard, but great. I’m committed to finishing.”
I have my highlighters and notecards and I’ve filled out my planner. I’m ready.
Let’s do this thing.