Many years ago, in the midst of my five-year career as an infantryman in the United States Army, I had a grand vision. My best friend at the time, Ryan Wood (pictured below on the left, with me in 2006), and I, were going to get a house together in Oklahoma City. I was going to go to college for creative writing, and he was going to go for art and political science. Our goal was to create a graphic novel showcasing the reality of American imperialism and its brutal effects on the globe. We assumed that eventually we would be rich enough to open a punk rock venue/bar together and go from there. The plan was solid. Nothing could of went wrong, until Ryan Wood was killed in Baghdad in 2007. That event threw everything off track.
So I got lost. I developed many problems, and worst of all (for me), my future was shot, my friend and focal point of my plan was gone. I left the Army with my plan dissolved, but eventually I moved away from my family in Arizona and enrolled at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC. I had no definable goal in mind, and I was only going to school to make money off of the government’s generous compensation for my service (Service members get a GI Bill when they get out, which pays them monthly to go to college.) I chose Communication Studies because it had the easiest math requirements, and seemed somewhat related to a career in some sort of writing, which was good enough for me at that time.
I made it to UNCW at 28 years old. I never felt like I fit into the college culture. I lived off campus my whole career and never got involved in extracurricular activities. I also found I could never connect on any lasting level with my classmates because I constantly compared them to the friendships I had forged in the inferno of 25 months of war. I noticed, a few months after completing all the prerequisite courses and earning an AA, that I was losing the knowledge I gained in those courses. There is no screening process to divide potentially dedicated, outstanding students from the ones who just attend to attend, and those listed second forget everything. So I slipped in through the cracks and ended up jaded by the ordeal. I approached college in a less-than-ideal way: I just did enough to get through it.
But the resources were, and are, there for those who are interested. There is a career center to build a resume, volunteering, applied learning, and internship opportunities to add valuable experience to your education. There are professors who, if you come to them with concerns, will go out of their way to help you reach the place you’re aiming for. But nobody is going to drop any of that in your lap. You have to seek it out and pursue it yourself. I didn’t reach out. I skirted by with the minimum, and am left with a mostly hollow experience of what could have been another milestone in my life.
What I have learned about myself in my four years of college is that my lack of a plan has morphed into a lack of passion, which has reinforced a lack of precise direction. I sit here on the cusp of graduation, with a hazy track of uncertainty unfolding before me. I see my classmates rattling off their big goals to their buddies, detailing the rungs they will need to climb to make those plans work, and I see their youth, which I am quickly losing. It leaves me wondering what I have been doing the past four years, and causes even more concern about the next four. I have the wisdom to know I did not do the best that I could in school, but the wisdom came too late to be of any use at UNCW.
It could be argued that I was never a go-getter, and was doomed from the start due to a personality defect, but at least I am here sharing my wisdom instead of shivering in a gutter somewhere. I did have a plan at one point, but have failed to create one since it was lost. So don’t write me off as just a bad example of a good college student. Look at me as a wise, bad example of a good college student, since I have recognized and shared my shortcomings. You could learn something from me. I could tell you how wonderful the opportunity was and how clear it made my life, or I could give you the truth of it. I went to UNCW without really knowing why, and now I am leaving without knowing exactly why I was there. College seems like a logical “next step” for many, but you have to engage with it far more than that for your education to be a life-changing experience. You have got to know yourself and know what you want out of life, or college is going to be just another grind for you.
To be fair, I did take an internship opportunity that may have sharpened me up a bit, and every one of my teachers were excellent, passionate, and dedicated to their craft. Not one person entrusted to my education failed me in the slightest. I remember being asked “What is your career goal?” during advising, and instead of sticking with “I don’t know,” I would come up with fuzzy answers to push the meeting along. But the tools were there. I just passed them up. UNCW was a great place that has enriched and guided many lives, and will continue to do so after I pass through. The tools will be there for you, and you ought to use them.
I learned many things in college, but the most important thing I learned wasn’t in the brochure, at orientation, on the website, or in the course catalog: have a plan and a backup plan as quickly as possible, and get motivated and involved enough to turn the plan into reality. Seek out and grab every opportunity that moves you towards that reality and never let up. Otherwise you may find yourself at 30 years old, sitting with backed up classwork clawing at your heels and a foggy future two weeks before graduation, wondering how so many others seem to have it all figured out while you float on through to no apparent destination.
I must say, the situation is not as dire as I have presented it. All I know is that a lot of people think I am a good writer, enough to make me believe it. But I do not know how that translates into a career to tell an advisor. So I’ll trudge through the muck until it all clicks, or I will die before it ever clicks. Either way I am following a path that is good enough for me. I’m just not so sure where college fits on that path.
I also have to use my soapbox one last time to express a hearty thank you to Dr. Jeanne Persuit for giving me the most monumental, colossally meaningful display of encouragement I have ever received on this murky trek. I thank you with the highest degree that a blog post can convey, and can honestly say that that moment was the undisputed highlight of my college career.
I have to ask that you please raise a glass for Sergeant Ryan Mitchell Wood next time you get a chance. Google his name and title to get a feel for him, as he is the driving force of my motivation. Pay your respects. I give his memory and family extraordinary credit for helping me hold onto something sacred, which is a necessity to keep me moving.