Walking the walk

Two years ago, I thought I’d be on a very different track than the one I ended up on. I wanted very much to get into the Physical Therapy Assistant program at my local college, and I wanted some help paying for it. I got neither of those things. Interestingly, though, the essay I wrote for the scholarship committee ended up being more true than I meant it at the time. Sometimes the truth is buried – even inside yourself. I wrote this in the spring of 2017.

Entering a college classroom at 41 years of age is an act of courage. Can I keep up with these young, fresh minds? Are my study habits hopelessly out of date? Will I get lost in the technology? Can my sciatica withstand small plastic seats? How many times will I have to go to the bathroom in 75 minutes? Will my kid help me with math? So many questions. The advantage, however, is that my survival rate for scary situations is currently 41 years out of 41 years. My kid tells me that’s 100%. Pretty good average, I’d say. And squaring my courage to enter a classroom is less stressful than facing divorce, moving, and getting my daughter graduated from college. All of which are happening right now and all of which I am also 100% surviving. Sciatica be damned – bring it, college!

I’ve noticed that one of the main differences between an 18 year old student and a 41 year old student are their perceptions of time. The former doesn’t have it, while the latter can think of nothing but. I’ve spent a lot of time raising my child, supporting my military former-husband’s career, and working to fill the gaps in our income. Twenty years is a long time to think about everyone’s needs but your own. But it turns out that the question “What do you want?” has a surprisingly ready answer – I want to help people help themselves. I want to be part of their journey of self-discovery and I want to do it in concrete ways that have nothing to do with platitudes and everything to do with measurable results. I want to do all of this right now – without spending another second wondering if I’m cut out for a career of my own or if this is the right move for my family. It’s true that I “ain’t getting’ any younger” but it’s more true that I’m excited and motivated to finally be making decisions for myself. That’s why physical therapy assistant is the perfect career for me. The program timeline is short enough that I can devote myself to it full time, and the outcome is that I get to spend every day helping people accomplish their recovery goals. 

I’m a goal-oriented person. Need to organize a potluck for 100 soldiers and their families? I’m your gal. Wrangling a busload of 5th graders on a field trip to Washington D.C.? I got this. Write a personal essay asking for money? Boom – outline done! I’m good at getting through the process, whatever the process might be. Sometimes the process requires stillness and compassion and experience taught me I can do that, too. Sit with the young mother whose husband is having shrapnel removed 3,000 miles away? That’s me.  New employee overwhelmed by training and nerves? Take a break and lend a sympathetic ear. Kid overwhelmed by finals, life decisions and the end of their childhood as they know it? Cry with them and get ice cream. At least, that’s what I do when it’s my own kid. (Seems to work, though.) The point is if there’s a finish line, I’m going to get there, no matter what. Whether that finish line is getting through the day my husband left, or graduating a college program for the first time – I know I’m capable of doing whatever it takes to make it there. Winston Churchill said something about it being “the courage to continue that counts” and at this point in my life I have to agree. I have enough successes and failures behind me to truly understand that persistence is the hallmark of character.

A large part of my experience crossing those finish lines is that I didn’t do it alone. Many people find asking for help difficult, but I can tell you from experience that it gets easier the more you do it. Learning how to tailor requests to the source is something I’ve learned through trial and error, and I think I have a pretty good handle on it now. Which is why I asked my friends to help me move, and I’m asking this committee for college money instead of the other way around. Also, I have half the time of the traditional, 18 year old student to pay off loans – did I mention the “not getting any younger” bit? I spent the last 20 years taking care of other people, and I’m proud of that accomplishment. Now I’m asking for help while I take care of me.

Having just completed my first semester of traditional college, I can say that the number of times I have to get up to use the restroom in one class period is (usually) zero. The technology is confusing, but not impossible. I still have pretty good study habits and yes, my kid helps me out. I’d rather not talk about my sciatica, but I admit to hobbling out of the classroom behind my more limber, flexible classmates on occasion. It’s worth it. It will continue to be worth it until I cross the finish line, with courage.

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Class of 2019

As of today, I am a graduate with an Associates of Applied Science degree. I won’t tell you what field because it’s small enough to be identifying and I don’t know you that well. Unless I do, in which case you already know! I have some disjointed thoughts I need to get down. Strap in.

A two year degree doesn’t sound very impressive when compared with graduate degrees and before I entered this program I, too, held the opinion that it wasn’t really worth celebrating. That’s because I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. I pushed through five straight semesters while also holding down a thankless retail job, paying all my bills on time, walking all my dogs regularly, devoting a not-small portion of my time to volunteer activities, AND I made the Dean’s list. Twice. The particular program I was in incorporates doctorate-level studies (not a lot, but I can talk about some nit-picky science shit, lemme tell ya), and required regular clinical rotations. I worked very hard over the last two years, with no time off, and I earned the respect of both my instructors and my peers. My two year degree is impressive as fuck.

Speaking of peers – I didn’t really make any life-long friends. It’s not that kind of program. Most of us were middle-aged and seeking a career change, with built-in families, friends, and support structures. We weren’t necessarily looking to create a new family. But it’s true that cohorts share a camaraderie that you can’t appreciate unless you’ve been through something challenging and emotional with another group of people. Different groups call it different things (such as “unit cohesion” in the military), but the sense of shared accomplishment and the unspoken understanding that comes from fellowship is real. Whether you want it to be or not. My classmates measure success in their own ways, but we all understand what it took to stand here at graduation and say, “We earned this.” It’s not a small thing.

I won’t be walking with my class. It’s a long, boring, stifling, unwieldy ceremony that doesn’t represent accomplishment to me. But I will be joining my class for a meal, sharing that sense of camaraderie one last time before I move on. I was good at school. A linear path with clearly set goals and expectations is a challenge that appeals to me. My instructors had glowing feedback and recognition for me at the end of my courses. The program director said that not only did I raise the bar, but I brought all of my classmates up as a result. They gave me the department award. And they’re proud of me. That feels really nice.

I have a strange sense of dazed aimlessness this morning. No school deadlines to fret over, no continuing project or assignment to dwell on, no particular schedule to slave to. I have other things going on. There is right now an offer letter in my inbox from an employer wanting to give me a full time salaried position. It’s not my dream job, but it is a real job and I desperately need one of those right now. I’ve been three years without a real income or insurance or security and the weight of that stress has become increasingly unbearable. So I’ll take the job, which is a two-year commitment, and I’ll work just as hard there as I did in school and hopefully in yet another two years I’ll be able to move a little closer to the life I envision.

None of this, not one single bit, would have been possible without the unflagging support of my daughter who fulfilled every support role imaginable and some unimaginable. She helped me with my math homework when it literally made me cry. She walked my dogs when I put in 13 hour days. She listened to me rant, rave, and crow. She single-handedly kept us from being buried under an avalanche of dirty dishes. And she’s proud of me, too. That feels amazing. I absolutely could not have done this without her.

Three years ago, I thought I might die from grief, abandonment, rage and insecurity. Today, I’m about dig into a new career, city and future. I’ve rediscovered myself in the most challenging ways, but I’m not ashamed of how I got here. I’m proud of myself, and that’s everything.