College Graduation, 20 Years Later

I graduated from the University of California, Riverside on June 22, 1994, twenty years ago today. It is supposed to be closer to 100 ºF in the metro Washington D.C. area today, and it was probably at least 100 ºF in Riverside on the day I graduated. Not the kind of weather you want to be decked out in black and sitting for hours on end. I mocked this bit of meteorological irony in my first published story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer”:

However, it was also my graduation day and the high-noon sun would allow none of us graduates to forget that summer was upon us. The graduation ceremony was like a final exam: one in which we demonstrated that we were smart enough to follow one another in an endless procession, under a blazing sun, draped in black. We sat there baking while the speaker cast his arms about the similarly-dressed audience, praising our individuality. Finally the dean of the school conferred upon us our respective degrees, and we tossed our sweat-drenched caps into the air and plotted our escape.

I did indeed plot my escape. My memory of the exact course of events has become fuzzy, but I seem to recall that after I received my diploma, I was supposed to process back to my seat in the audience. Instead, I walked passed my seat, past all of the seats, and back to my apartment, which was heavily air conditioned, and awaited the arrival of the rest of my family. This may or may not have actually happened. I tend to think it did, but memory is a funny thing, and twenty intervening years serve to disrupt it.

There is a lot of debate these days about whether or not college is worth the cost. Twenty years ago, it was worth it to me, although I did come out of school $11,000 in debt. My degree, a B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Journalism, did not help me get a job in my field, however. I worked in the dorm cafeteria all through school, mostly in the dishroom and doing custodial shifts. In my last year, I started doing computer work for the managers of the cafeteria. I continued this work throughout the summer of 1994. I’d drive out to Riverside from Los Angeles listening to the O.J. Simpson trial on the radio. In October of 1994 I did get full time job doing IT work and software development for a think tank. I have been at that job ever since.

Could I have gotten the job I have today without the degree? Well, technically, no, because an undergraduate degree was required at the time. But no specific degree. It didn’t matter if it was in computer science, political science, or dance. That said, I don’t think I would have been as successful in my job had I not had a degree because, looking at the big picture, my education at UC Riverside provided me with two things that have made me successful both in my career as an application developer, and my avocation as a writer.

First, I learned a good work ethic at UC Riverside. In addition to a normal (and sometimes, more than normal) load of classes, I worked in the dorm cafeteria. My days were often long, beginning at 4:30 am and not ending until 10 or 11 at night, when my homework had been done and papers had been written. I learned to juggle multiple things. I’d work in the dish room for a few hours, then run off to class, then do some homework, then write a paper, then start a custodial shift. That prepared me for my experience in my current job, where it is not uncommon for me to work on three or four (and sometimes six or seven) different projects at the same time. And, of course, in the evenings, I switch gears. I spend time with the family, and then switch gears again to write.

Second, I learned how to learn. I think this is probably one of the most important benefits I got from my education, and one of the most valuable results of an undergraduate degree. The ability to learn opens up far more doors than any one specific degree does. It has allowed me to grow in dozens of different directions. In the twenty years since graduating, I’ve read over 600 books, and probably learned more from those books than I did in my entire high school and college years combined. But I wouldn’t have learned as much if I did not know how to learn in the first place. Reading a book is different from engaging with a book. Before school, I read books; after school, I engaged with them. I didn’t necessarily take what was on the page at face value. I asked questions and challenged notions, and began to develop my own set of opinions and views of the world.

If often tell people that high school taught me how to write, and college taught me how to learn. I’ve been doing both for the last twenty years and there is no end in sight.