Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I Really Learned in College

How My "Overpriced" Education Helped Me Become a Stay-At-Home Dad

It's mid-May, which means it's commencement time for the 4,500+ college and universities in the United States.  Two weeks ago, my alma mater celebrated their commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2015, marking ten years since I completed my own undergraduate studies.  It also marked only the second time since 2002 that I was not present at a college commencement ceremony, either as a graduate or assisting with the execution of the event.  Ironically, that Friday, as many of Minnesota's colleges and universities were busily preparing for their own institution's commencement exercises, the Friday Roundtable discussion on MPR featured three college presidents discussing the future of college and their reaction to a recently released book entitled The End of College.  I was able to catch a few minutes of the discussion as we were en-route to the grocery store (for the third time that week).  

Having worked almost exclusively in higher ed since completing my own years as a student, I tend to follow the commentary and analysis on the current state of higher education in America.  If you work/worked in higher ed, have kids in school, or are getting ready to send kids off to college, it's hard not to.  With tuition rates increasing at astronomical rates, much of the narrative has centered around affordability, access and outcome, often posing the question if a college degree is really "worth it" anymore.  Being a product of one of Minnesota's private, liberal arts colleges, and having spent a number of years working in higher ed until my "retirement" last fall, I'll be the first to admit that my view is incredibly biased.  I've drunk the Kool-Aid.  Read-on with that disclaimer if you'd like, as I share why I think my college education was instrumental in my decision to become a stay-at-home parent.

During my last few months on the job before my retirement, I was able to have a lot of candid conversations with some of the student employees that worked in our office, especially the six seniors.  Four of them had started working with our office as first-year students and the other two started as sophomores, so I had a unique opportunity to watch them transform throughout the course of their college years.  I really enjoyed our conversations, as I knew they were in a place similar to where I was ten years prior.  Apprehensive about the future, wondering if I would get a job I liked, or a job at all, after graduating.  Wondering how to make sense of the past four years and how that experience made me a marketable employment prospect.  I could tell that they were both excited and nervous about the future held in store for them.

They were also pretty curious about what I thought the future held in store for me, as I would be leaving my job before they finished their senior year, for a new, and somewhat unknown adventure.  And since I had essentially attended the same school as they did we seemed to be in similar circumstances.  They were leaving college to find their way, most likely by getting a job, while I was making probably my biggest career decision ever - leaving mine to stay home with our growing family.  During each conversation, I told those students that I truly believed it was the educational experience I received, one that was very similar to their own, one that I was still making healthy, monthly loan repayments for, one that some may deem "overpriced" and "not worth it", that best prepared me to make the decision to voluntarily leave a paid job that I enjoyed and become a stay-at-home dad.

I told them that what my education provided me, above anything else, was the opportunity to create my own definition of success.  It was the individual-oriented, whole-life development experience that I had, which was a byproduct of the close friendships and the authentic personal & professional mentors I was able to develop.  This education showed me how to examine my life and decided ultimately what was important to me.  It help me objectively ask the important questions like, "what the hell am I doing, and is it what I want to be spending all of my time on?"  It gave me the background to answer those questions in a thoughtful and educated manner, and ultimately decide it was personally time for a change, even if that meant forgoing a paycheck.

This was not by chance either, but more by design, as the college I attended describes itself as a place that emphasizes "leadership and a personal development profile that includes intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical development."  No doubt a lot of colleges and universities use a similar tagline to promote their institutions, but I feel the education I received really lives up to that.  In the most recent alumni magazine I received, the current President, also an alum (and an economist), opines that the education one receives at our alma mater is "as much about the formation of character and the search for meaning as about academics", providing "a solid foundation to help young men seeking to develop their moral understanding and find meaning in their lives."  

Am I realizing the maximum economic potential of my degree?  Absolutely not (I probably wasn't even when I was working).   When we/I (depending which story you follow) decided to have one of us stay at home, it was a bad financial decision from a strictly dollars and sense standpoint, even after considering the cost of daycare.  I once read a great quote (pretty certain it was in Bill Bishop's The Big Sort) that I'll paraphrase because for the life of me, I can't seem to find it again. The quote suggested that one of the great things about receiving an education is knowing what luxuries you can afford to live without (or something like that).  When I stopped working, we had to make financial adjustments to figure out how to make it all work.  But I definitely believe our education helped us navigate this aspect in a way that we felt comfortable with, even if I did get one of my worst grades of my college career in Econ 101.

Does my alma mater care that I'm not a high-powered executive, pulling six figures?  No.  One of the biggest things they are concerned about, and that they promote to prospective students (and parents) is if I would rate my college experience highly (which I do) and if I am satisfied with where my education has gotten me (which I am).  Sure, the Development Office may wish I made a little more so I could up the very modest donations I make to the annual fund, but overall they likely see me as a successful product of the institution.  Though I doubt they'll start using me for an sort of Admissions marketing campaign - "come to school here, and you too can be a stay-at-home parent."      

Could I have gotten a similar experience at a different institution?  Maybe, but I feel like the personal nature of a liberal arts education best prepared me for the daily challenges of life, and not just a career.  I was a very mediocre good student.  I graduated with honors, but the lowest level of honors you can graduate with.  At a larger school, with larger classes and much more onus on students navigating their own way with less guidance, I'm sure I easily could have slid through with minimal effort.  However, I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have done as well academically and definitely wouldn't have been forced to challenge my own personal and intellectual development.  I often comment that I didn't entirely possess the ability to think critically until my second year of college.  It was the various mentors; faculty, supervisors, and other administrators, and fellow classmates and friends that helped bring this capacity out of me.

It's also been these mentors, colleagues, and friends, most of who have had an educational experience like mine, that have been incredibly supportive of my decision to become a stay-at-home parent.  Not once have I heard a comment suggesting that this will negatively impact my career, which undoubtedly it will.  Nor has anyone questioned why, after spending six years in college and getting two degrees, I would chose to leave the workforce.  Not even my parents, who provided me massive amounts of emotional support and equally significant financial support during my college years, have wondered what they did wrong (openly to me at least).  They all get it, and some have told me that they are a little jealous.  They know it was not a decision that was made in haste and without a sizable amount of thought; pros and cons lists, cost benefit analysis, risk valuation, etc.  No doubt it was a relatively unconventional decision.  But as I told my Dad, it was both the hardest decision to make and the easiest decision to make.  He responded by telling me that he had a ton of admiration for my decision.

So when I was filling in for an event a couple of weeks ago and a current student I had just met asked me if I was using my degree, I didn't hesitate to tell her that I did everyday.  Maybe not in the traditional aspect of the content of what I learned in my classes, but with the myriad of life skills that I learned through those transformative experiences I had while in college, which included my classes.  Had I known nearly ten years after finishing undergrad that my life would lead me to be a stay-at-home dad, instead of majoring in Political Science I should have double-majored in Elementary Education (with a double emphasis in Foreign Language and Music) and Psychology (pediatric emphasis), and minored in Art, Accounting, Nursing, Nutrition, Peace Studies, Sociology, and Theater - seems like a manageable load.  I also probably should have taken some night classes in Culinary Arts at the Tech College.  My kids don't care that I understand Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" and understanding it doesn't make me a better parent.  But I don't think that's the point.  In my opinion, the point of an education like the one I received is to challenge you to live an engaged and thoughtful life.  To question what is important to you and where you find fulfillment.  To have the bravery and courage to put those things first in your life.

In her commencement address to the College of Saint Benedict Class of 2015, the class that included those six seniors I got to know so well, activist/author Valerie Kaur told the 475 women about to receive their diplomas that; "You are brave.  You just need to believe in your own calling - wherever it leads you after graduation."  Her comments could have easily been directed to me, or any of us, when she asked; "Who is calling you?  Whose calling will you become?"  My kids are calling me.  No seriously, I think all three of them are currently crying, so I should probably wrap this up.  I think my education, as "overpriced" as it might have been, has helped me hear them better (figuratively, of course).  Seeing as I haven't thrown in a musical reference yet, I should probably close with one, and this one seems to work seeing as Pitch Perfect 2 just came out last week.  To quote Jessie J. (yes, Jessie J.), "it's not about the money......we just wanna make the world dance, forget about the price tag."  My world dances everyday, and not just because of the almost daily dance parties that get held in our home.  It's tough to put a price on that.

One of my all time favorite photos.
My roommates from senior year of college after our commencement ceremony.

After graduation, these guys went on to do amazing things like:
teach English in China, get a law degree, work international assignments in India and Hong Kong at senior level positions for one of MN's largest companies, travel extensively in Asia, teach on one of the poorest Indian reservations through TFA, get a Master's Degree from USC, oversee the New Mexico Department of Education

Until now, I felt like I had done nothing to compare to their accomplishments.


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