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A Lifetime of Learning

We are in a world that obsesses over going to college at all costs. If you don't have a degree, you're not going to make any money, you'll be working at McDonald's, blah blah blah. Just like folks tell the myth that every kid needs to learn to code to "get by" when they grow up, there's also the myth that you cannot be successful if you don't have a degree.

As for me? It took me just under fifteen years to get my degree.  And by the time I finished, the purpose was this:  just say you finished it.  Kinda sad, I know.  When I started college, you see, they had fabulous degrees along the lines of “liberal arts” and “general studies” – where you could specialize a little, but not have to put blinders on to learning whatever you wanted.  Being a twenty year old with three years of college behind me from a state school (I was one of those supposed-to-be-a-Reedie kids, who couldn’t afford the then-$20K tuition which has since doubled), and in classes between 40 and 400, I was quickly losing focus and needed to go wander.

And I did, happily, for the next 10 years, living my life and moving from my longtime retail company job to the world of human resources.  While I tried to take classes in the other states I lived, I quickly learned that quarterly college coursework didn’t count as much as semester coursework, so unless I wanted to return to my hometown (which at the time was not in the cards), I’d have to swallow that painful pill and take more courses.  At the time, while I ate up everything from psychobiology to Italian to race relations to photographic lighting theory, it still was pressed firmly in my mind:  I must end up with a degree after all of this, or I’ve failed myself.

Ahh, isn’t hindsight 20-20.

Well, during all this time that groovy little thing called the internet became part of life, and with that, the online degree, and the human resources major that used to be lumped in with “business” was starting to be offered as a standalone program as well. Having only an interest in people, and not number-crunching, this was a relief.  My pre-HR administrative background gave me a strong budgetary understanding, but I had no interest in debits or credits or macroeconomics.  Get my drift?  Anyhoo.  I found a program that accepted my credits, and within one year, I’d finished my undergraduate and scored myself a BS in Management of Human Resources from a school that encouraged both independent and collaborative learning.  Kinda awesome.

But guess what?  As an HR professional, I didn’t come away with my degree knowing any more than I had already gained on the job - stuff the classes cannot teach you. Ironically, the process of obtaining my professional human resources (PHR) certification had done more to fill in any gaps in my knowledge that weren’t already acquired in the workforce.  And my fellow students?  Not one in my class had an ounce of related work experience, making me the only one capable of giving real life examples in class discussions.  It was  a real bummer.

Where am I going with this, you might ask?

Here’s the deal:  want to go to college?  Do it because you want to learn OR because it's a legal requirement for the job you want (i.e., doctor/lawyer/teacher).  But don’t do it only because the world (or your parents, or your partner, or your inner voice) says you have to.  Now don’t get me wrong, college can be awesome.  But again, the stuff I found awesome about university?  The cool classes I took that stretched my mind, the teachers who actually interacted with me.  Best class for me?  Existentialism during my second year at PSU.  Dedicated teacher who gave really constructive feedback, helping me become a stronger and more effective writer...and thinker.

And don't think you have tot have the 'traditional college experience' if you do go. Can only afford part time? Do that! Can't afford or don't want to live in a dorm or sorority/fraternity house? Then don't! You get out of college what you choose to get out of it...however you choose to do it.

I was fortunate in that my dad encouraged me to take whatever interested me. While my mother was not terribly supportive nor interested in my new life, the fact that my dad encouraged me to do a 'general studies' major for the time being was endlessly helpful. Doing this let me simply learn, and eventually see after trying new things where my passions lay. (hint: it was not English Education as I'd thought it'd be!).

While I never went there, I’ve always been fascinated by alternative styles of education, such as Colorado College, whose “block” style allows students to take one class at a time.  No multitasking a massive courseload.  Or the master’s degree program in Ecopsychology at the Naropa Institute, which combines a 2 week wilderness intensive with a flexible home-based study program.  (Ironically, I never went to either as my year living in Colorado was dreadful – I quickly learned I!)

Personally, I’d love to get my master’s degree, but not because I need it.  There are great programs out there once you get past undergraduate.  Interesting that the cool stuff is often hidden at the top – why is that?  Kinda lame if you ask me.  Plus?  You’re looking at $25-40K just for that MA/MS title – and let me tell you, after working my arse off this past year to eliminate my financial aid, well, it ain’t happening.

So how do you keep learning?  No worries!  Seriously!  Here are a few ways that I found have been awesome…

1) Find out what the reading materials are for courses, and buy the books used or check them out at the library.  I did this with the Ecopsychology program that I referenced earlier, and for minimal cost and zero class time, I fell madly in love with the topic – without falling madly into debt.

2) Don’t forget about Community College.  I've been taking a number of classes in Community & Public Health online through the local college over the years, which incorporates both onsite and distance learning at around $450 per class.  Still too much dinero for your budget?  Go back to Suggestion #1.

3) Look for public events & workshops held by colleges, industry groups, & nonprofits.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  There are tons of learning opportunities for the community at large.  I've attended workshops led by faculty for Portland State University Lewis & Clark College and more, many which were offered at little or no cost, and I was hooked. One was about experiential learning as a way to teach others, with a great writer presenting and a great community discussion.  Another was on ecopsychology, combining topics of zen buddhism and sustainability, in an interactive environment.   Amazing.  Another example for tech folks?  Free Geek in Portland offers classes in building computers, Linux OS, and more.  For free. (There are SO many awesome groups in tech alone in cities that many just don’t know exist – and they’re great ways to gain and/or brush up your skills to get you where you want to be).

4) Watch TED Talks Seriously.  Your brain can go crazy with the number of awesome mentors and teachers out there.  Tons of inspiration, education, ideas, resources.  I particularly love the ones by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert and motivational speaker Scott Dinsmore.

5) Join Meetup. You’d be amazed how many there are and how many cool events focused around the areas you are interested in are happening.  In past years, I’ve seen documentary films, gone on (then later hosted a segment) garden tours, walked the city, seen spoken word poetry, and more.  And hey- you can start up your own as well! How awesome is that – the power of social media, kids, I tell ya.

Having spent a lot of time as a recruiter and a career coach, I know that some people benefit more than others from formal education.  Some people learn on the job better.  Some people learn by books more effectively.  That flexibility in learning is SO vital – and why I look at people for how they can APPLY what they’ve learned in their work – not where (or if) they went to college.  In fact, in conversations with hiring managers at the start of a project, one of the first things I recommend is moving that degree requirement into the “optional” section of the job posting.  I know too many fantastic software engineers, marketers, admins, and managers who didn’t finish college (or didn’t choose go).   I know too many folks skilled in the trades who make way more money than me and came up through the ranks via apprenticeships and the like. Plumbers will never be outsourced, y’all.

I’ll leave you with a few things to contemplate.  First, I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soulcraft .  Second, remember that college education is not mandatory, it’s one tool for learning, but not the only tool.  There are so many ways to guide your own learning, to create your own direction, to think in ways that expand your mind and help you follow your dreams.  So with that, just remember this: 

Learn who you are. Learn who you might be. And take the leap from there.  

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