The (Belated) Graduate

I GRADUATED FROM college last month, at the ripe old age of never-you-mind.

Mine might’ve been the last cohort of young people who could earn a good living without initials stuck to the end of our names. While the boys older than us stayed on in grad school to avoid Vietnam, we Nixon-era kids dropped out as often as we graduated. Back in the 1970s, I, along with half the teenage population of the country, was in journalism school trying to be Bernstein and Woodward. With two or three reporting courses under my belt, I left school behind and set up for the real world to be a writer. Tolstoy, Twain, Thackeray and people whose names begin with other consonants, as well, had done just fine without benefit of a college degree. I figured I would, too, and worked my way far up a corporate ladder or three to send my own childen through school.

Then three years ago, a friend suggested I come teach at her college and for the first time in my life not having those initials stopped me from doing something I knew I would love.

Needing a school with no Phys-Ed requirement and which took my existing, albeit aged, credits, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota in a little-known program in the College of Continuing Education called the Program In Individualized Learning. Designed for adult learners, PIL is no easy street to a diploma — it requires students to complete degrees of their own design based on rigorous liberal arts criteria, a blend of regular classes, and independent projects that are rather like mini-theses.

For astronomy homework, I bolted out of board dinners and orchestra concerts to go measure the moon’s midnight progress across the sky. In biology, I memorized the Hardy-Weinberg equation (ask me sometime and I’ll draw it for you on a dinner napkin) alongside lab partners who somehow, bless their hearts, resisted the urge to call me “mom” or “that lady.”

Through distance learning, the U lets students take courses from home and mail in writing assignments; I studied the Vietnam War that way. Cheating, I know, to study history you actually lived through.

So the second week in May, I walked into Northrop Auditorium to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” wearing an utterly unbreathing polyester gown that is sure to become somebody’s Harry Potter costume, come Halloween.

When I walked across the stage and shook the Dean’s hand, she said, “It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?” And I guess it has. Out on the Northrup stairs where I remember kids demonstrating against the war in 1972, I had my picture taken alongside fresh-faced little Twinkies the ages of my children. The male members of my family were trying to take pictures of Trent Tucker, a fellow graduate and another grown adult who didn’t think he was too old to hit the books.

Today, kids can’t get a good job without a degree. Competition is fierce because we baby boomers refuse to retire and make room for the young ones. They need every leg up they can get, and we need them to succeed and thrive. Tuition costs cannot go higher; what should go up instead of down, as it has lately, is state-funded support. The U educates thousands of young people who will live way longer than Trent and I and who will eventually run the state. I would much rather live in a community led by well-educated people then save myself a few hundred tax dollars.

 

This was commentary on an education funding bill in Minnesota, and was published in the Southwest Journal, June 6, 2005, page 8. And that handsome young man in the photo is my eldest son, Christopher Hill Nettleton, now the proud father of Q and husband of Megan.

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