It’s Just A Piece Of Paper

13 Jul

I’ve been thinking a lot about my education, or lack thereof, lately.

I’m sure that a lot of this is because of my book; I’ve been editing the shit out of it this week, and it feels like it’s sort of taken over my life. Most of the book takes place in 2003, right around the time that I had to drop out of university. That personal failure, combined with a bunch of other stuff, made that autumn one of the lowest points in my life. In fact, leaving school was a huge part of the reason that I ended up being hospitalized for depression that year.

I’d always known that I’d go to university; there was never any question about that. My father was a lawyer, and my mother spent most of my childhood finishing her Bachelor of Arts in night school, graduating when I was sixteen. I can still remember what I wore to her graduation – a long, sort of shiny black skirt with pinky-purple flowers on it, and a pink tank top with spaghetti straps. Fuck, I can even remember what I had on when my father was called to the bar. I was four years old, and my mother insisted I wear this red flowered dress with a huge white, lacy collar. I hated that dress, because that damn collar made me feel like a clown. After the ceremony, my father took me to meet a supreme court judge. Trying to think up something suitably grownup to say, I shyly said to her, “I certainly admire these burgundy carpets.”

So education was always a big part of my life, and I grew up with the understanding that I would earn at the very least an undergraduate degree. And considering the fact that, after earning her BA, my mother took a leave of absence from her job in order to earn her Master’s of Social Work, I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that my parents hoped I would go on to complete a graduate degree or two as well.

Look, before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way now: I’m smart. I know that. I’m not trying to be vain or conceited; I honestly don’t think there’s anything vain about knowing your strong points. And for a long time, “smart” was the only thing I had – I wasn’t pretty, or popular, or especially talented in any of the ways that I wanted to be talented. The funny thing is, back then I would’ve given up being smart in a heartbeat if that meant that I could have been any of the other things on that list, especially the oh-so-desirable “pretty.” But I couldn’t, so I stuck with being the brainy geek.

In my final year of high school, I applied to a bunch of universities, all of them at least a couple of hours away from home. I knew that there was no fucking way that I was sticking around Kitchener; I’d been waiting pretty much my entire life to get out of there. I was thrilled when I got into my top pick, Dalhousie, and I moved to Halifax in August of 2001.

I was a good student. I got As or Bs in all of my classes, even Astronomy which, by the way, was technically a physics class (although, to be fair, it was a physics class geared specifically towards arts students). I’d thought that I wanted to study English, but in first year I fell in love with Latin and that class, along with Ancient History, was my favourite that year. In my second year, I officially declared Classics as my major, and settled in for the four year slog towards a Bachelor of Arts with honours. And you know what? I loved every fucking minute of that slog. I loved my classes, I loved my profs, I loved the other students, I loved the stupid wine and cheese events my department had, I loved all the nerdy Classics jokes, I even loved studying and writing papers. I loved all of it. Most of all, I loved learning.

Unfortunately, sometime during my second year, things started to fall apart for me financially. My government loan suffered at the hands of a bureaucratic fuck up, and I couldn’t get a student line of credit because I had no one to co-sign for me. I ended up somehow doing a full year of classes without paying for them and Dalhousie, needless to say, was pretty pissed. Then, when I tried to figure out how to register for my third year, I discovered something tricky: you can’t register for classes if you owe the school money, but you can’t get a government student loan if you’re not a registered student.

Can anyone say Catch-22?

So, after spending a month enduring a ridiculous circle-jerk involving various student services employees (with a couple of useless assists from the student aid office), I realized that I had to quit. Finishing my degree just wasn’t going to happen. Not then. Probably not ever, if I’m being totally honest with myself.

That moment, when I went from thinking of myself as a student to realizing that I was now one of the working poor, was one of the most shameful in my life. I can’t think of anything else in my life that embarrasses me as much as the fact that I had to leave school. Even now, it makes me fucking heartsick to think about; in fact, when I was talking about it with a friend today, I started crying. Ten fucking years later, and the memory of having to leave my degree unfinished still turns me into a stupid, mascara-smeared mess.

I guess I’d thought that I would’ve been over this whole lack-of-education thing by now, but I’m not. Oh boy, am I ever not. When I meet someone new, I’ll mention that I went to Dal, and that I took Classics, but unless I absolutely have to, I will never, ever admit that I didn’t finish my degree. If, somehow, it does come up, I will always carefully point out that I had to leave for financial reasons, and not because I failed any of my classes. When faced with well-educated people, I have a borderline pathetic need to prove how smart I am, to the point of being obnoxious about it.

The funny thing is, when I tell people that I wasn’t able to finish my degree, they’ll often laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just a piece of paper.” Which is easy to say when you’ve come out the other side with that piece of paper clutched firmly in your hands. But to dismiss it as being just a piece of paper is to ignore the fact that it’s a very, very expensive piece of paper that has the ability to magically gain respect and open doors. I get that saying that is an attempt to put me at ease, to make me feel like the playing field has been levelled, but let’s be honest: the field will never be level. You and your degree will always been on the higher ground, and I will always, always be down here, feeling small and stupid and mean.

We talk a lot in our society about how education is pretty much a cure-all for all kinds of social ills. Poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and hygiene: you name it, and a bunch of people will tell you that education is the key. But what we don’t talk about is how fucking unattainable post-secondary education is to a huge part of our population. Oh, sure, there are government loans, but they can be hard to get, and they often fall short. Student lines of credit aren’t available to kids who don’t have someone to co-sign, and working full time over the summer just isn’t enough to cover tuition anymore. And all of that doesn’t even touch on the fact that tuition fees are rising at an alarming rate; I don’t even want to think about what they’ll be like by the time my son graduates from high school.

Higher education is a business, and don’t you ever forget it. We may like to have these misty-eyed ideas that we live in an egalitarian country where everyone has an equal opportunity for success, but anyone who honestly believes that is seriously fucking kidding themselves. Universities and colleges want your money, and if you can’t find a way to pay them, well, they’re not interested in educating you. You could be the smartest kid in the world, but if you’re poor – well, I’m not going to say that post-secondary school is impossible, but I will say that you’ve got a way harder road ahead of you than most. What makes all this even more difficult is the fact that most people who’ve earned university degrees don’t seem to be aware of the luck or privilege that helped them along; they truly believe that it was all their own hard work and sacrifice.

Which is really just another way of saying that poor people don’t work as hard or sacrifice enough.

Whenever I talk about my half-finished degree, someone will inevitably tell me that I’ll finish it someday. But the truth is that I probably won’t. What’s the point? Why shovel tens of thousands of dollars into that hole when all that I’ll get out of it is a piece of paper that says that I’m pretty good at translating things into Latin? I mean, sure, I would love to someday earn my BA, but if I’m being honest with myself, I know that there are so many other things that I would need to spend that money on before I wasted it on myself.

My kid, though? My kid is going to earn that piece of paper. We started an education fund for him when he was born, and we’ve asked our family to contribute to it in lieu of presents. My kid is never going to have to quit school because he doesn’t have enough money. My kid is never going to have to sit through two months of classes without a textbook because his loan hasn’t come in and he can’t afford them. My kid will never have to live off of one crappy cafeteria dinner a day because he had to cancel part of his meal plan in order to pay his phone bill. My kid is going to accomplish what I was never able to.

And once he has his degree, I will never, ever refer to it as just a piece of paper.

women graduates_0

39 Responses to “It’s Just A Piece Of Paper”

  1. Dominica Malcolm July 13, 2013 at 3:11 am #

    In Australia, if you’re Australian rather than an international student, they have a system in place that allows you to defer payment of tuition until you’re working a job and earning enough for it to come out as part of the tax on your salary. At least, that’s how it was when I was studying. I’m not sure if I’d have been able to study without that, but I worry it will change to something more like what you dealt with. I’ve heard they’re already trying to change some of the other rules, like making people who move overseas pay it back (at present they don’t have to, I guess because they don’t have to file taxes in Australia — and that’s the situation I’m in).

    • bellejarblog July 13, 2013 at 3:14 am #

      Oh man, that’s pretty amazing! I wish that we had something like that here.

      • Dominica Malcolm July 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

        I honestly think it’s better for society as a whole if there weren’t financial limitations for tertiary education. Unfortunately it seems like there is in most of the world.

    • gita4elamats July 13, 2013 at 5:13 am #

      Before that, thanks to Whitlam, it was free! (。◕‿◕。)

      • Dominica Malcolm July 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

        I know! My mum got her education free in Australia, before I was born. They should go back to that!

      • gita4elamats July 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

        I agree! What are you doing in KL? 🙂

      • Dominica Malcolm July 13, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

        I’m a stay at home mum who is about to publish a novel. Moved here because my husband got a job with an international consumer organisation.

      • gita4elamats July 13, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

        I’ve been checking out your blog, see you there! 🙂

      • Dominica Malcolm July 14, 2013 at 12:27 am #

        I noticed. Thanks!

    • Emma Newman July 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

      It’s still like that. It’s called the HECS system. The other bonus is that any course offered on the HECS system is half paid for by the government, as far as I know 100% of undergraduate degrees are. So whatever you pay back in tax (once you start earning over 47k a year, they wont tax you for it if you earn below that) is actually only half the cost of the degree.
      Many postgrad degrees aren’t funded by the government like that, but most fall under the HELP system, which essentially means you borrow the cost of the degree from the government and they add it to your already existing HECS debt. You pay that back by tax too. It’s a wonderful system.

      • Dominica Malcolm July 14, 2013 at 12:35 am #

        Yeah, I think my GradDip was HELP, so I might’ve thought the whole system had changed when I did that. I finished my degree in 2004 and did the GradDip in 2005. I didn’t know my HECS debt was only half of what the degree should’ve cost!

  2. ceejaedevine July 13, 2013 at 3:33 am #

    The situation regarding higher education is difficult on so many levels. Even with 18 years of schooling, I am now earning what I am told is technically minimum wage and it’s really challenging. I chose to be there for my kids and it sounds like you are too and you should be incredibly proud of yourself for that. I have a hard time with some people telling me to think positively about everything, but you never know. If you really want to go back for a degree, keep that in your dreams. People say to put it out there and something may shift. I wish you the best as you figure out where to direct your passion for learning because once you have that it doesn’t go away.

  3. Louise Allan July 13, 2013 at 3:55 am #

    I’m not going to offer any platitudes to you for not finishing your degree — I know it would stick in my gut, too. I failed a year and had time off before swallowing my pride and going back to finish my degree. I watched those I’d started with all graduated and getting on with their careers while I was still a student. I hid my failed year from people, including my husband when we were first going out. One day he did the maths and realised there was a year missing from my life and I had to ‘fess up. Now, I don’t give a shit who knows. There were lots of reasons for it and one day, I can tell my story.

    It stinks that you have to be wealthy to go to University in the US of A. Like Dominica, I’m Australian. When I studied (I’m a bit older than Dominica), you didn’t have to pay fees for University at all. Anyone could go if their parents could afford to feed and clothe them for a few more years. Now you pay for your tertiary education, but you can defer paying the government back until you earn over a certain income. Sadly, as Dominica says, that’s changing, though. Each year the fees increase so some students start their working lives with A$50,000 student debts.

    It’s not egalitarian, not at all, and it never has been throughout history. The unwealthy miss out.

  4. cherylsconfections July 13, 2013 at 3:55 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. I think that it’s very brave of you to speak so honestly about the education system and your own experience in it. The ideas you work with about institutionalized classism are truly fascinating. Thank you again for all that you’ve said.

  5. NS July 13, 2013 at 4:02 am #

    I don’t know why, but this kind of reminds me of the time when I badly wanted to get into an MBA program in one of the finest universities of my country and didn’t quite make it because of ‘insufficient subject-matter knowledge base’ ( or so was the feedback of my interviewees). For a long time I felt humiliated and angry. The funny thing is I didn’t even know why I wanted it so bad. But at that time, it was like my life depended on it! Today, I thank my lucky stars for not getting admission. I was just not cut out for the corporate world. I went on to do something I adored and most importantly I found myself and began to write. I don’t know if the comparison is right, but I have strong faith that things always manage to fall into place, sooner or later. I hope your son gets his degree when the time is right. But God forbid even if he doesn’t, he was probably meant for bigger and better things:).

  6. Abby July 13, 2013 at 4:09 am #

    This piece is beautifully written – thank you for sharing your powerful story.

    For me, this piece of paper signifies so much more than an undergraduate degree – it is a statement of my endurance and my unending resilience.

    I am exactly 24 days, one 3-credit class, and two major papers to graduating with that damn piece of paper that has been my nemesis for over 20 years now. Like you, I am smart. Out of necessity, I walked away from my highschool half-way through Grade 9. My favorite subject was English … I lived and breathed for that class every day – I poured over every literary piece our teacher brought to us – I stayed after class to debate each piece – and I poured over the books in the library and in the book stores (never thinking for a moment that I had enough money to actually buy a book or two). My English class is what made getting up each day, in the hellhole I was existing in, possible.

    Circumstances happened and I had to leave highschool and navigate an adult world much too soon. I still read, and wrote, and read more (Sylvia Plath’s chapbooks were a constant companion – a gift from my English teacher) … but not in any structured way. I could barely feed myself, let alone pay tuition at the local University (some days I would wander the grounds pretending I was a student there … gazing longingly at the “real” students who belonged there). Student loans and co-signers were not an option then – things were far too chaotic.

    Fast forward 20+ years … I not only survived the hell years, I thrived. I am married to an amazing woman, I have a beautiful family, a fantastic career, and a few loving and thoughtful friends. Through all of this, the nagging feeling of “you are not good enough” has followed me through each career transition. It was tiring – always feeling like I had to prove myself, when really I was fighting myself the entire time.

    Three years ago, I was at a dinner party … chatting with a friend of a friend. The conversation was casual and easy. And then the question came. What did you study in University – like there was an implicit assumption I was privileged enough to go to University. I am not sure what changed this one time – if it was the kindness of her eyes, the genuine interest in her question. I was honest and not defensive. I explained I had always dreamed of studying at a University, that I love learning, and am ever-inquisitive about most anything, but more than 20 years later, I had not yet embarked on this academic journey I had so yearned for and that I feared it might be too late now. I am established in my professional career and honestly, the thought of quitting my job that I love, not having an income, and racking up debt was a little terrifying. She smiled, that kind of smile that starts slowly and then lights up a face … she gently extended her hand and placed it on mine and quietly said, “have you heard of Royal Roads University” in Victoria, BC. I admitted I had not. She went on to share that her friend had recently graduated from Royals Roads with a BA in Professional Communication and she loved it – that she is a changed woman.

    I couldn’t wait to get home that night and Google the University and the curriculum. I started the application process the next day (which was quite rigorous) – the curriculum is such that I could live at the University for three weeks, once per year (I envisioned using my vacation time) and complete the remainder of my courses on-line as part of a cohort. In part, because of my experience, the University accepted my application into the two-year program without the required 60 credits (Year 1 and 2). So I started my academic journey a little over two years ago, while working full-time, and balancing my life.

    The courses have been a delightful journey of self-exploration, sharing, struggling, learning, arguing, and growing more into myself every day. My professors have been, for the most part, extraordinary. I am almost sad this journey is starting to wind down … is slowing ending.

    While I can’t say it has been the most difficult time (that special place is reserved for my teen years), it has been the most exhausting and inspiring time of my life. So I am 24 days short of wrapping my hand around that proverbial piece of paper (my physical graduation is in November) … but in 24 days, I will have accomplished something I didn’t ever think was possible. Not if I was to look back through the lens of my 15 year old self. So it is so much more than a piece of paper – it is a testament to never saying never, no matter what. I am 42 and will finally achieve my BA.

    Now back to that assignment 🙂

    On a completely separate note … I love immersing myself in your pieces (while this is the first time I’ve chosen to comment – know how much of a difference your writing makes in this world).

  7. Ciara Raven Blaze July 13, 2013 at 4:17 am #

    oh yeah, it’s “just a piece of paper”, all right. one that you worked your ass off for, for *insert number here* years, slogging through classes that you were sick of taking, spewing forth what feels to you like brain vomit for twelve double-spaced pages in various classes, slacking off as much as you can get away with (and, sometimes, completely giving up on everything until you realize you really can’t do that, so you stop), having panic attacks about it when you’re not wishing you could stop going back, and, in spite of all of this and more, EARNED.

    it IS “just a piece of paper”, but that piece of paper represents something more than just a piece of paper with fancily drawn words on it. to me, it represents hard work done at the expense of sanity and, at times, happiness.

    I love to learn, but I got so, so, SO tired of school in and of itself that I grew to hate it. but I still earned my degree… and I’m still proud of myself for actually FINISHING.

  8. Antoinette July 13, 2013 at 6:50 am #

    It’s just a piece of paper is glossing it over. I felt the same way, not because I was embarrassed not to have one, but because I felt I was smart enough not to need one. Unfortunately, employers have felt differently. I would get great performance reviews, only to be told I was “not promotable” without at least an associates [two year] degree. At one point, my application for a volunteer position was declined because I did not have such a “piece of paper”. I was crushed. I could not even work FOR FREE! So I swallowed a very bitter pill and started attending classes one at a time… Three years later, at 36, with three kids, I am transferring to a four year University. It’s not been smooth going, and financially it has been very trying. And I am at least two years from from reaching my second benchmark: a Bachelor of Arts. But. I am doing it. My husband and family have supported and shared my commitment. I wonder if you might find yourself on a similar path? You seem to have done a fair amount of work already. I hope the best for you and enjoy the hell out of your blog. You are doing great work.

  9. Melissa July 13, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    I have certainly been guilty of referring to my degree as “just a piece of paper,” but know that it’s not to offer platitudes to people who don’t have one, but because I really believe it. You and I *are* on the same level, and if we’re not, its because you’re probably much smarter than me!

    I’m proud of the things I accomplished in school, and the people I met, and the work I got afterward, but if I’d finished one credit shy, I’d still be proud of those things, even without the piece of paper.

    My undergrad was hard. I worked for it. But not all programs are that hard, and if you just want a piece of paper, it takes exactly two things: Time and money.

    Actual intelligence and the strive to continue learning more every day (which you clearly have in spades) are so much more valuable than a certificate that says you completed and paid for a certain number number of credits with satisfactory performance.

  10. sarahdaigen July 13, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    I think you bring up so many good points here, and as someone who both benefited from her parents’ generosity in terms of going through university, AND worked hard to earn that piece of paper, I totally understand its importance, and the blessing of having it. But I DO want to gently point out and remind it isn’t a cure-all; 5 years of work and thousands of my parents’ dollars later, I am embarrassed at my underemployment, and at all the doors that ‘very expensive piece of paper’ were supposed to open to me, but didn’t. In lots of ways, on the path you want to tread – writing etc. – you are actually further along than lots of folks with their degree! Not saying this to undermine the degree thing – I wanted it, I’m pleased to have it, and someday in the future it will open the door I want it to open – but just to say, it is no guarantee of a job, or proof you’re smart … and often puts you in that fun limbo of being ‘overqualified’ for the jobs that you need to pay the bills, without being quite enough to get you the job you want. And as you point out, these days is often just as much an indicator of social class, as of smarts. Good for you saving up for Theo’s education to get around that particular bunch of nonsense! 🙂

  11. Jane July 13, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    In my first year of university I failed more than half my courses. At the end of the second semester I was advised to leave by the department’s student counselor because ‘usually, people like you never get to the finish line’. I felt like I failed, more than in an academic way. I spent a week thinking what was the best option, for people like me. I decided I’d try again. Since then I spent every summer working for tuition and books. With a yearly tuition of approximately 1750 euros plus books that´s doable, here in the Netherlands. I realise I am privileged with an accessible higher education system in this country. Anyone who´s got the brain and the intention to study can get, and stay into university. I hate the fact you didn’t get that opportunity.
    I encountered lots of talented, smart people who, like you describe, love university. Most continue the academic family tradition, others have their own personal academic ambition, regardless of their background. I admire these people, their attitude and passion. I do sometimes wonder if they realise they are working according to the standards and bars the university (the money-making business called higher education) laid down for them. (My apologies for the next bit) It´s a piece of paper, not your ticket to happiness. And yes that degree is going to help you to get a better job. But even if you’ve got that degree the field isn’t leveled. People with rich well-connected parents and in certain circles well-known names will always be on the higher ground, and people like me will be down here. All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others. Real equality is an utopia.
    The student counselor was right, by the way. Usually people like me don´t get to the finish line, not everyone fits the mold. But I got my MA a few weeks ago, and I’d like to keep trying.

  12. mfennvt July 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    I dropped out of college 29 years ago. Went for four years, changed schools once, changed majors 5 times, and then finally realized that, while I am smart and love learning, college just didn’t work for me. Same with my husband, although his was a different trajectory. While I don’t really regret not finishing–although I sympathize muchly with what happened to you (quitting when you don’t want to sucks)–I have found myself irritated that that lack of degree kept me from getting jobs I knew I was perfectly qualified for, because companies make assumptions that people without that paper are somehow less. We aren’t.

  13. Amanda Wood July 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    I went back to school after some time away and finally after many (more) years of struggle got that BSc. I am very proud of it..but today it still is not always enough! Good for you investing in your son. I try to help friend’s children in that way too. And ultimately being proud of your achievements even without a piece of paper is a more valuable lesson anyway. The education you got while at Dal still counts

  14. Bentheredonethat DeBerry July 13, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    I’m not as confident as you are that you will not complete your degree, however, I am 100% in a agreement that a college degree (and, especially, the institution from which that degree is awarded) confers a measure of social status that has “currency” even if it no longer means a guarantee of employment. Statements like “it’s just a piece of paper” are, even when well-intended, patronizing and disingenuous at best. At worst, they reflect a profound ignorance of class privilege. My parents paid for my undergrad degree and any money I “earned” “working” in college was simply to support my psychoactive hobbies or pizza consumption. Did I do well in school? Yes. Was I engaged in my studies? Yes. Did I earn a college degree on the basis of my own self-propulsion and personal merit? Hell no! Here’s what I do know . . . You see things in a way that is novel and thought provoking and you possess the gift and willingness to share that with others in a manner that touches their hearts and minds. Keep creating and being open and let go of your delusions of what is and is not possible for you (you have no idea) and be available for what unfolds in each moment.

  15. Su Leslie July 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    I’ve been thinking a lot about university education lately. My son is 15 and starting to think about going on to tertiary study. His father and I both benefited from a particularly enlightened period in New Zealand history when university fees were around 90% subsidised by the State. For me, that was the only way I would have been able to study. Although my parents aspired to a university education for me, they couldn’t have afforded it. And even if they could, I left school and home at 16 anyway. I worked for three years because there was a rule that if you’d been out of education for that time but completed the Entrance Exam, the government still gave you a bursary as well as paying fees. I was able to do both a BA and MA (the latter partly funded though being employed as a tutor in my department), while my partner – whose parents were a bit better off but sent all three kids to university – also ended up with a Masters degree. It makes me really sad that my generation is now in government and is busy dismantling the very system that gave our politicians the education that allowed them to get rich/into the professions and go into parliament to pull up the drawbridge. Students these days can take out loans – which for a time were interest-free – but still leave young people many thousands of dollars in debt when they graduate and hampered in their ability to buy a house, raise a family etc. Recently, the government removed loans on post-graduate degrees. This has happened at the same time as there has been a huger explosion in tertiary education. Vocational course that used to train technicians and reward them with a diploma are now “degree” courses – so you have a situation where one can take out a loan to become a hairdresser or beauty therapist, but not to do post-grad study in medicine or engineering (or anything else for that matter). I dispair for my country’s future. We already lose the brightest and best overseas anyway, and I can’t help but feel that will only continue.
    You are right – degrees are not just “a piece of paper.” Universities are about so much more than learning skills or information, but you are also right that they are a business and unless the State steps in and ameliorates the economic imperative, we will lose a tradition of human development that has lasted 1000 years, and given us so much.
    Well, rave over. I’d better go and apply for that job I probably won’t get but was hoping for so that I could help pay my son’s university fees.

  16. Merry July 14, 2013 at 2:02 am #

    Just a piece of paper. But like the birth certificate, the high school diploma, the marriage certificate, the divorce decree, the college diploma carries with it the unspoken validation of an occurrence that either elevates or categorizes a person. And be it right or wrong, that validation is has invisible powers: you’re legitimate, you’re educated, you’re marketable, you’re a failure, you’re worthy……the unseen expectations suffocate us as we attempt to make sense of the fact that our status shouldn’t be dictated by the Just a Piece of Paper Club. But it is……l

  17. Bridgesburning Chris King July 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    As one Kitchener girl to another I was not brave enough to go across country.!

    Sent from my iPad

  18. AmazingSusan July 15, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    Both my mother and her older sister did not finish high school because they had to go to work to help support “the family” (i.e. their parents and two younger siblings).

    My mother went on to become a highly successful real estate agent who counted amongst her clients movie stars, movers and shakers and so-called “ordinary people.” She was beloved by her clients and her community (in which she actively participated on all levels). She was feisty and fun. She still is. Unfortunately, she is dying of Alzheimer’s.

    Her older sister, my aunt, went back to university in her mid sixties and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts at the age of 72.

    I’m so proud of them both. In my experience, a lot of education happens outside the hallowed halls of learning. I’m all for the university of life.

  19. Celeste July 15, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    Getting a B.A. is so easy I don’t know why anyone would consider it an accomplishment. Most people consider it a 4 year vacation. I remember the parties and sports and adventures, not so much the scholastics. Making the poor yearn for a degree is just another way to marginalize their efforts. Nobody ever got rich getting A’s in Latin.

  20. theyellowblanket July 15, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    This makes me intensely sad for you. You of all people should have that damned piece of paper. And it *isn’t* just a piece of paper. I must say, perhaps this is one of the very few ways that the US is more favorable than Canada. The lenders were foaming at the mouth to lend me the 100k USD it took for me to get through Undergrad and Grad. I will probably be paying these loans off for the rest of my life, but I am very thankful for my two crazy expensive pieces of paper. I do hope that you go back some day. Or if you don’t, that you find a way to let go of the meaning of that paper and embrace the type of intelligence you have—the kind nobody could EVER get in school.

  21. goth27 July 16, 2013 at 4:58 am #

    I can really relate to your story. The country where I live we only technically have one actual college (the few others are more like technical colleges) and the saddest part is that, most people look poorly or down on people who only attended and graduated from that college, rather than going abroad to complete a degree from a more reputable university. And let’s just say that this college wasn’t exactly that cheap either. It was almost three times as much per term as my high school fees were.
    I am not going to down the college because I went there for three years, and on the whole the education wasn’t as terrible as people make it out to be. However, its still just “the local college”. I went to a prestigious private school and so, while all my friends were getting ready and applying to colleges in the US and Canada, etc, I right along with them did the same. I had every expectation that I would be able to go far away from home and live the real college life. And my parents never stopped to tell me that all that money that went into application fees, all that hard work at writing essays, etc was going to be invalid because the truth was they couldn’t even halfway afford the school fees for even the cheapest university, let alone the university of my choice which at the time was Beloit College.
    I spent a long time trying not to resent them for essentially lying to me by not telling me they couldn’t afford it, but eventually I got over it, but the world wouldn’t let me forget it. Everyone I met from that point on has looked down on me. Most even neglect the fact that I do in fact have a degree (just an Associates of Arts), and all because I guess in their minds its not a “real” degree. It made me bitter beyond belief. It made me resentful towards my friends, eventhough it wasn’t their fault that I couldn’t afford a better college. Even know, whenever I hear someone close to me is going off to college it gives me a little hit. Its like, I expected to get a degree, I expected to be able to validate myself to the world, and that opportunity was gone from me. And again, the college is not a bad college, but sometimes I can’t help but feel like people maybe halfway think I wasn’t smart enough to go to a better college, although really and truly I applied to five different universities and was accepted to all of them.
    I was never the smartest, but I was by far stupid. The most frustrating thing (as is with everybody) is how little help is out there to help people who, aren’t exactly poor, but aren’t rich enough to afford college. And what would anger me beyond belief was the joke that all these institutions would play on you telling you “this will help you with your college tuition” and the “help” barely even covered room and board at the very least.
    I have often thought about possibly going back to the college (because I still can’t afford a better university) and get my BA, but I often feel like yourself, that maybe I would be better off saving that money for something more worthwhile, like saving up for a home. I commend you for starting a college fund for your son. After going through the pain and heartache of feeling like I am not good enough because I don’t have a respected degree, I always sworn to myself that when I have a child, I will try my best to avoid that for them by starting one as well.

    Anyway, thank you for this piece. I am so glad I am not the only person out there in this world that feels discouraged because of a lack of a degree over circumstances beyond our control.

  22. mik9121 July 16, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    thanks this is such a beautiful story, so real. Going on to attend school next year, I find myself wondering how the average person is able to afford university somehow and not come out with an enormous amount of debt? It seems that there needs to be a better way to make getting an education more accessible instead of moving in the opposite direction where we see tuition prices rising swiftly. There has got to be a better different way, so we don’t here more of stories like yours- being forced to tear yourself away from something good that you loved and we’re excelling in- simply because you didn’t have the financial support.

  23. theasceticlibertine July 17, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    I haven’t read through all the comments, and I don’t know how it is in Canada, but in the US if you work at a University you can study there tuition-free. You still have to pay fees but they’re minimal. It’s the only way I was able to afford my degree. One of my staff is getting her B.A. because she also wasn’t able to afford it earlier. So that’s an option, maybe?

    • goth27 July 17, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

      But how easy is it for somebody who isnt a US citizen. I know my cousin and one of my friends worked at their college throughout the length of their degree, but the difference was that they had no issues paying full tuition regardless.

      • theasceticlibertine July 17, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

        That I don’t know. Like I said, not sure how it works in Canada, if that time of program is in place at universities there. For me, it was worth making less than I would in the corporate world because the tuition credit was an employee benefit. An added bonus is that if you have children, they also get to go to school tuition-free if they get in.

  24. katya940 December 22, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    If you want the education and information from the rest of your degree, you can take classes online for free. Check out edX

  25. Ann January 7, 2014 at 2:29 am #

    Quit whining and start planning how to get that degree. Take one course per year, if that’s all you can afford. Eventually you’ll get there.

  26. Heather March 15, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    I left university the first time, after bouncing aimlessly from major to major. I didn’t make the decision lightly, but I was barely keeping my head above water, and something had to give. My father was disappointed, and let me know that after paying for 3 years with no degree, if I wanted any more education, I was on my own financially. I didn’t think he was being entirely unreasonable. I went about my life, but like you, hated that I didn’t have the degree, because I was smart and yet I had failed at this. Eventually, I came up with a plan to get a job on campus and take advantage of my university’s free courses for staff. I planned my course schedule around work, and I finished the last year of my degree doing one or two courses a semester. One morning, almost exactly 20 years after I started university, and 3 years after my father died, I casually left my desk on a coffee break and went to pick up my piece of paper. Once I actually had it in my hand, I made it all of 10 feet from the window before I burst into tears — it is not just a piece of paper.


  1. 2013 In Review: Part 2 | The Belle Jar - January 6, 2014

    […] blog was somewhat neglected, but I did post a few things: I wrote about how much insomnia sucks, how ashamed I feel over my lack of education, how privilege colours the way that white folks talk about Trayvon Martin, and what it’s like […]

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