Late Start

By Susan Harvey

Earning a college degree increased my confidence more than any other single life experience. At age forty-five, I decided to go to college. My two daughters were in college, I was newly divorced, and wanderlust struck, so I applied to the University of South Carolina in Columbia, my hometown, and ran home to my mother.

Fortunately, both she and the university accepted me, so on a hot, humid, August afternoon, I went to the campus to register. This was BC – before computers – and we used sheets of columns bubbled with No. 2 pencils. Registration was held in the USC coliseum, and lines of students were woven around stanchions encircling more than half of the street-level lobby.

Stand in line to register; stand in another line to get the financial aid check; stand in another line to register a vehicle; stand in yet another line four hours later to get an ID picture made. By that time, in 100 degree heat, everyone was so attractive.

Everywhere I went people thought I was faculty. “No, just getting a late start,” I told them. “Oh, post-graduate work?” they would ask. “No, just old,” I snapped as the day wore on. If the temperature outside was 100, it was even hotter in the crowded coliseum with all the doors wide open.

What was I doing here? I was different from the other students; they were just kids. I didn’t own a pair of jeans or athletic shoes. I didn’t really believe that I could earn a four-year degree. I picked up one of the miniscule complimentary cups of Pepsi and found a quiet spot under a small tree outside the coliseum. I sat and cried and drank my Pepsi, wishing it were Coke, and felt guilty for sending my two young daughters off to college on their own. I was forty-five, and I wanted my mother.

Much to my surprise, four years went by quickly, and after two changes of my major, I earned a BA in English. The only problem was that I couldn’t find a job with a BA in English. So I did what all English majors do; I went to graduate school.

I didn’t believe I could earn a graduate degree, but I had earned an undergraduate degree, so I was willing to try. The graduate degree was a bit more difficult and had nothing to do with anything in life – even teaching – but I persevered and earned the MA in two years. For six years, college had been my life. I had survived on financial aid and part-time jobs. I was tired and poor, but by golly, I had accomplished my goal of higher education. Now all I had to do was find a job – and pay off the student loans.

Fortunately, my part-time job as a technical writer and editor became a full-time job, so the unemployment problem was solved. However, technical writing jobs are closely tied to the U.S. economy, and since the company I worked for depended on government contract work, I was constantly under the threat of a lay-off. One day the dreaded pink-slip appeared. I was laid-off for three months. I put all my belongings except my computer and a few clothes into a storage unit and ran home to Mother.

By this time, I was fifty-one years old and living with my mother. I vowed never to give my children a key to my house. Once again, she opened her home to me. I found a steady job with a temporary agency as a technical writer on the Y2K project at a bank. I hated the job, but it gave me the courage I needed to find a “real” job.

Everyday I took a change of clothes to work with me, and after work I changed clothes, left by the back door of the bank, dropped off my duffle bag of dress clothes in my car trunk and crossed Assembly Street. It was just a short walk to the beautiful new library facility, where I would peruse several newspapers looking for jobs. I usually didn’t leave the library until it closed at nine o’clock.

After several weeks of job searching at the library and online, I found an advertisement for an English instructor at a community college. The applicant must have a Master’s Degree in English, possess good grammar skills, and have the patience to work with developmental students. I wasn’t sure about the patience part, but I had the degree and the grammar skills. I wasn’t sure that I knew enough about teaching to teach, but I decided to apply for the job anyway.

It took three months and three face-to-face interviews, but I got the job. I would have to move to a city where I knew no one. I would be totally on my own for the first time in my life. Could I handle it? Would I enjoy teaching at a community college? How would I know if I didn’t try? So I moved, rented an apartment near uptown where I could walk to campus if I wanted to – something I never did, but I could have.

I’m still teaching, but now I never doubt that I can teach. I’ve come a long way since the shade tree at the USC coliseum. I now have the confidence to follow my dreams. Does this mean that I am a better person? I don’t think so. Inside, I’m still the same woman who cried under the shade tree for fear of failure. However, my concept of failure has changed. Before my college experience, failure meant not accomplishing whatever I set out to accomplish; therefore, I was frozen with fear of trying something new. Now I realize that failure means having an opportunity and not acting on it. I regret few things I have done in life; I regret many things I had the opportunity to do but didn’t.

About this writer

  • Susan Harvey Susan Harvey is a humor writer who teaches college English. She lives in Murrells Inlet, and in her spare time enjoys cooking and reading mysteries.

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