Every time a class comes to a close and I breathe that audible sigh of relief that comes with meeting challenge after challenge and deadline after deadline, with an enduring and steadfast fortitude, I wonder why I am doing it. Why do I cram my days with work and my nights with study, leaving me an occasionally out-of-touch human being? Why do I accumulate the monetary, physical, and mental debt? Why do I fill my head with facts and figures and theories and every manner of personality-stripping bit of minutia I can accumulate?
I ask myself this almost every semester and I always come up with a very simple answer. It is the same answer that started my academic journey and the same answer that pushes me headlong toward a distant horizon that glows with possibility.
I do all those things because I am not trying to get somewhere with my education. I am trying to be someone with it.
I am the eldest boy in a family of beautiful and capable woman. My childhood was not easy but I have always had an example of intelligence and strength in my mother. Despite the difficulties of our humble beginnings, my mother provided and loved for me and my sisters and did what mothers around the world always do — the best that they can.
But I learned that sometimes the best that people can be in life is limited by the best that people can see in them. My mother never got her real chance to shine like she deserved because the world only saw a single mother with no real education. She never had the good fortune to give us all the things I know she wanted and always tried to give us, because the world couldn’t take a chance on someone who didn’t have the measurable qualifications. I want to say that they missed out on a great opportunity, but so did she. But she taught me something invaluable on the way.
She taught me that every step I take toward my degree is a step I take toward opportunity, not toward graduation. Walking down that aisle and getting that diploma is not the accomplishment. The accomplishment is recognizing that we now have the opportunity that many others — just as capable, smart, and deserving — never had. We have a chance to get our foot in the door and to effect change, not just for ourselves but for the people we love and cherish.
My son will not have to grow up like I did. It is not because I am a better parent than my mother, which I am most assuredly not. It is not because I am more capable, smarter, or more accomplished. I am none of those things either. It is because I found the academic opportunities in my life and I took them, if only because I didn’t want to be dismissed when the opportunity came to move ahead in life.
We should not look at our education as a piece of paper that is waiting like a carrot at the end of the stick. We are more than pack animals climbing up a mountain wearing the mismanaged burdens of our everyday lives. We are thoroughbreds galloping triumphantly through the halls of academia and waving the flags of our accomplishments, not to boast but to declare our allegiances.
Our accomplishments say from a distance that we are students committed to causes and to lives that will be remembered. We are pursuing the great and elusive genius of those that came before us, stomping wider the trails of their accomplishments. We will not be silenced by ill-timed pop quizzes and all-night cram sessions and hand-cramping essay questions!
As I close for this post and move on to yet another difficult class, with another set of unlikely standards to meet, I want to ask a favor of you. Don’t pursue your education like it will eventually get you somewhere. Pursue it like it has already gotten you everywhere. If you do that for me, I will owe you one, and so will the world, because you will end up with more than an education — you will end up with an experience.