Thursday, January 5, 2012

So Momma, you want an Education? Part 1 - My History. A lesson in what NOT to do.

I'm writing this series because I have several mommy friends who have expressed interest in getting or finishing their college degree. As my profile indicates, I am a college student and a mom, so I thought I could share some of the things that have worked well for me... and others that did not. I hope to offer my friends and dear readers more guidance than I had. Because I had NONE. Through this series I will  provide tips on how to select a school, how to prepare for your return to school, how on earth to you can pay for your education, time management tips and tricks, and many other useful tidbits. These were learned the hard way by yours truly, and I share them in hopes they will make many people's educational journey better.

This section is a bit of my history. To understand what to do - or NOT do- you have to know a bit about where you've been. Since most of my dear readers probably do not know this story, I'll fill them in on a bit of my background so they can understand bits that I may refer to in future parts of this series.

I was totally unprepared to step back into college when I began at Mount Mary College in 2008. I had begun my bachelor's degree 12 years earlier, at age 17. I went to University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse for two-and-a-half years, only to run out of money and have to move back home to Milwaukee. There I married my college sweetheart and got a respectable job. Said job was comfortable, if not my dream, so I stayed and bought a car, a house, and got a dog. I tried finishing my degree for a short time with Cardinal Stritch University's Adult Learning Program. I went to classes one night per week and studied one class at a time, and completed about 3 classes per year. It was a great program and very adult-friendly - it allowed me to keep my "day job", which I loved. But I left it because I was in the Information Technology Management degree program, and I realized after a few classes I just didn't have the passion for computers that it would take to do well at it. Not to mention the program was new at the time and I saw some problems with the curriculum- for instance, when taking a class called "Fixing and Repairing Personal Computers" it might help to have REAL computers to take apart and work on. I was learning from reading a book, and I could do that on my own!

Fast forward about 6 years, and I found myself now divorced. The house, three cars, my painting business, and the dog were all gone. I was working in a Customer Service job and wanted to improve myself. I enrolled in the most convenient and low-cost University in the area - University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and decided to major in English. I had always liked to write, and felt that I could do some sort of business communications work with the degree. After all, I had almost 3 years completed on a 4-year degree, so finishing with ANYTHING would be good. And English was versatile, right? I showed up for my first class, Shakespeare, only to find my recently estranged boyfriend was also in the class. I was panic-stricken. What do I do? Did he think I was stalking him? I swear, I didn't plan to be in the class with him! It just happened to be the only class I could get at the time; getting the classes you needed at UWM was next to impossible. Interestingly enough, he motioned to me to sit in the open seat in front of him. After class, he asked if we could go have coffee and we talked a lot and had a nice time. I am now married to that estranged boyfriend. BUT...I digress.

After 3 classes at UWM - an excellent Shakespeare and Film Authorship class, and then a Robert Frost Poetry class that was a total JOKE, I had a 4.0 GPA, but didn't feel I was learning all that much. And certainly not anything valuable. I wanted to go to a school where I actually was challenged. I took a tour of several area schools, in particular Mount Mary College because they had a true Business Communications major.

Classmate Kendall in the basement hall that inspired it all!
On my tour of campus we walked through a basement hallway and the guide pointed out the "Interior Design classrooms". I gazed in and felt a tightness in my chest. The students were bent over drafting tables, working diligently. The room was covered in samples of materials and the display case outside the classroom in the hallway showed projects done in the classes. They were BEAUTIFUL. I felt that pang of longing for a creative career... the kind of career I had begun training for all those years ago at UW LaCrosse. I had wanted to be a Theatrical Set Designer. Wouldn't an Interior Designer be quite close to that? But... that practical little voice inside my head told me "Don't be crazy, you have tons of English credits - you'll be done faster if you do English. Besides, there are no jobs in Milwaukee for Interior Designers." Somewhere in that self-dialogue was also my childhood and upbringing; I could hear my parents' voices telling me "Artists don't make any money". I was quite certain they'd say the same thing about Interior Designers. But that glimpse into the classroom that day haunted me for a very long time afterward.
One of my fellow student's AMAZING and beautiful boards! Work by Holley Bakich LEED GA

Well, remember that estranged boyfriend? He became my real boyfriend. He was finishing his last semester at UWM in English (with an emphasis on Creative Writing) when we found out we were pregnant. Whoops! We didn't exactly plan on THAT! So I was 3 months pregnant at his May graduation when Neil proposed to me. Liam was born on November 11, 2007 and we were married when he was 8 months old on July 19th, 2008. I had still been working in Customer Service and Sales Support jobs to help get Neil through school, and when I found I was pregnant I had put plans for school on hold. When Liam was born, I was working for a prestigious downtown China and Gifts shop as a salesperson and I loved it. I was content for a time. I liked my job, I liked the people and my customers. I loved putting together a tablescape for someone; helping them create a look. I started thinking about Interior Design again. I realized that in my heart of hearts, this is what I really wanted. Not English! I wanted to work with clients, solve their problems and creatively meet their needs and desires. Through a business group, I met a local "Green" Architect who gave a lecture on buildings that were eco-friendly. I had NO idea anyone was doing this kind of work. I invited him to lunch so I could just get to know him and find out more about what he did. I was fascinated. I wanted to create healthier more eco-friendly buildings too!

About this time the company transitioned me into the "Corporate Gifts" sales position for which they had hired me, and everything fell apart. I realized I had gotten on a sinking ship. It was October 2008, and the economy had crashed. People were losing their jobs. The one thing big companies were NOT spending money on were fancy gifts. And here I was... a totally unnecessary employee. Sales weren't happening. I couldn't even get any companies to talk to me through mailers or phone calls or networking events. They slashed my draw (I was commission-based with a draw system so I could have steady income) to a point where I couldn't even afford to put Liam in daycare. I would pay more to work than not to. Every day I was there, I was digging my family into a deeper and deeper pit with our daycare provider. Neil and I sat down over a bottle of wine and talked about what to do next. We agreed that it was God giving me a sign that getting my Interior Design degree was what I should do. I left my employer on Tuesday. Saturday I met with the head of the Interior Design Department at Mount Mary College - Pamm Steffen. After talking with her about what Interior Design REALLY was and what to expect, I was convinced more than ever this was the right choice for me. I was enrolled and began classes the very next week.

Because of the situation, I never was truly able to prepare for re-entering college. That has been my biggest mistake and the source of much of my woe as a non-traditional student.  Through this blog series, I hope to help other Moms (and Dads!) avoid some of the mistakes I have made so they can grow and learn with reduced stress and anxiety to themselves and their families.

SO... dear friends and readers... let me be your poster child for what NOT to do.

My next post: Pre-reentry Preparation for entire family. Weee!

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