An achievable dream is not what it seems.


I mention on my ‘About Joanna’ page that I am an aspiring chemistry major. Actually, I am an aspiring chemical engineer, and I have aspired for this degree for some time. I went to community college to get my general education credits out of the way because they are much cheaper there than at a four-year school. My plan was to transfer to a four-year school after I earned my Associate’s in liberal studies and do one of two things: get accepted into the engineering program or get accepted into another program just to get my foot in the door. I could always change my major once I got accepted. Some of my other aspirations include being a published author and selling some music and artwork on the side. I want to join a theatre group and perform solos on flute, piano and voice in my spare time.

Most of my childhood was spent in an upper-middle class environment, so I had more than enough exposure to academic and extra-curricular pressures and the general (rabid) desire of parents for their children to be perfect. It was nothing in my area for people to spend a couple thousand dollars on cultural enrichment trips out of state or out of country, to go to festivals, camps, lessons, and special programs of all kinds, and to win all kinds of awards. Many of these kids got accepted into exclusive colleges or exclusive programs in other schools with honors, scholarships, and fanfare. They were all ready to experience college life and experience the world.

Seeing as that my parents fell off the rails spectacularly, both mentally and financially, in my high school years, I was screwed in that department and it was a mighty effort just to do well enough to graduate. I lived in a rural area so I did not have access to public transport, and when you can’t get anywhere or do anything, you don’t have the opportunity to arrange carpools. It also does not help when your parents’ behavior alienates the entire neighborhood and  your neighbors judge you by your appearances, your parents, or other factors that should not matter. They were largely superficial people, unfortunately.

Lately, though, I have started to wonder: I now have the ability to experience college life. I would get to live in a dorm, participate in all the activities, make deep friendships, go on trips to different places, and all those other features of college life that you read about in brochures. I was so excited that I could possibly be part of this experience.

The issue is that I’m not sure I want this.

For a lot of people, college is like a camping experience complete with no parents and everything under the sun to do. The accommodations might not be ideal (prison cell dorms, anyone?) but that is part of the experience of roughing it and growing up. As a young college student, and as someone from a largely upper-middle class background, I am supposed to want this. Part of me was  sorely looking forward to it, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.

To be honest, the idea of living in a dorm does not appeal to me at all. I do not like to share my space with other people, especially strangers, and I am not a fan of the party lifestyle or the camping atmosphere that is fostered in dorms. I do not like having the intimate details of my life so easily accessible with double rooms, communal bathrooms, and overall lack of space. Plus, I just don’t want to deal with people partying, sneaking people into dorms that should not be there, or other annoyances like that. I hear suite-style dorms are not as bad in that respect, but it is still a problem and not all colleges have that option.

I have earned my Associate’s degree and as soon as I get my next couple of paychecks, I am putting down some money for a car, applying to a temp agency, and getting a full-time job. I want to move into my own apartment and stay in my parish. I will continue to take classes part or 3/4 time at the community college until I have the math and science credits I need to go for my bachelor’s in engineering. It might take my one or two years longer to get my bachelor’s, but so what? There is nothing wrong with being a non-traditional student, I will have money in the meantime, and I will have time to pursue other passions and possibly make money there as well. I don’t want to go to a whole new place in a whole new state and make this massive transition to college life at this point in my life. I miss my loved ones and want to be close to them. I have had much instability and trauma in my life over the past several years, and I want to slow down and heal from that.

Truthfully, I have never gotten along well with other kids my age, and I am glad that I did not have to experience that alone-ness while living in a dorm room with a teenage freshman. That was a major factor in my decision, but it is one that is not well understood. Dorm life is fun! You’ll love it once you get there.

That is what people said about high school. People who love what they do always say that, but they are speaking for themselves only. I am not you. I do not have your priorities, your needs, or your interests, and I would like you to not lecture me. I’m 22 years old and I want to move on with my life. The “college lifestyle” is not for everyone.

Non-traditional students will know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that people who do not go the “beaten path” with regard to college are looked down on. It is uncool to live with your parents or to live anywhere that is not on campus. It is uncool to not go on trips, to no do this or that. I am missing out on a vital experience and I am less “special” for it. I am not interacting or blending in with the other kids and that alone is a crime. Non-traditional students are more common and more integrated into campus life than they used to be, but I still see colleges treating non-traditional students as though they are traditional students with a few more years on them and a husband and/or kids in tow. The reality is that non-traditional students have a different mentality and different priorities. This, to me, is more isolating than just going to campus occasionally and being on the outside looking in.

I had a hard time telling my parents that I did not want to go the traditional college route. My father tweaked and thought I was trying to drop out of school. Oddly enough, my mother was a lot more understanding, which I did not expect at all. I expected her to be outraged because I was not the perfect college girl that my sister was, but she was very supportive. I think this is because she is going through something similar. She is going to school and looking for a job in her fifties. She is not looking to get rich, buy a house, or accomplish any grand feats. She wants a quiet, comfortable life and a job she can get some enjoyment out of. She also is not the typical college student.

Like I said, though, I am not dropping out. I am doing exactly what I want to do in another way, a way that is both more realistic and more enjoyable for me. I want to enjoy my life and have a life outside of work and school. In the end, I will have money and job experience AND a degree. Typical four-year graduates have credentials but little in the way of employment experience and that makes it hard to get a job after. I will have a lot less debt. It works out.

I think it will actually make me a better student. I have always loved learning and taken college seriously, but with the hell that I went through going to school on limited resources, I want a break from it. I want to slow down. My mental state and current living situation are not conducive to learning right now, and I hope that these adjustments will be an improvement. If I have my own place, I can settle down and study without others distracting me. I won’t have negative people and emotional triggers hovering over me. I will have the mobility and freedom to do what I need to do with more ease. Most of all, I will be happy and the weights that have been on my shoulders forever will be lifted.

Again, I am 22 and I don’t need anyone’s permission to do anything. Even at my age, I feel pressure to conform to others’ expectations of me. I feel pressure to be a full-time student, do all these extra-curriculars, be an exchange student, and be The College Girl. I guess it comes from my background, where that lifestyle is as natural as a rising sun and you are a weirdo for not doing it.

I don’t feel that pressure anymore. I will be going to night classes with my lab kit in one hand, my work uniform in a bag in another hand, and my utility bills sitting in my car down the street. I am my own woman, and my dream is achievable.

Just don’t tell me how to achieve it.

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4 comments

  1. Dee · September 13, 2011

    You should look at universities in city centers. They usually have a larger population of non-traditional students, many of whom commute by car and work full- or part-time, and are more geared to their needs. I’ve gone both routes (in my case, a degree from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a degree from Wayne State, in downtown Detroit), and I actually had more fun at the downtown school. WSU’s average undergrad is 28 and lives off campus. I made some great friends there. It’s no U of M, academic reputation-wise, but it’s well respected locally. See if you have a school like that in your area.

  2. Carol Gwenn · September 13, 2011

    Dee is right – a big-city school (if such is available to you) can give you the best of both worlds. I attended UCLA and Cal State University LA as a commuter student, and there were THOUSANDS of those on each campus. You get to choose what suits you in the campus experience without the dorm hassles and the whole living with strangers thing.

    Best of luck in finding the college environment that’s perfect for YOU. Am sure it’s out there waiting for you to arrive.

  3. Rachel · September 13, 2011

    I went to a liberal arts school in a fairly conservative and religious community (mormon, FYI, even though I myself am not Mormon or conservative). I found campus life to be very academically-oriented and low key. Parties, such as they were, were structured and tame, and no one had any obligation to join in. One could also live alone on campus, if one could afford to pay the price. Or live off campus and still participate in campus events of on8es choosing. Perhaps something similar exists in your area? Shop around. Not all schools are the same, and many are more academic than social.

    In any case, you are absolutely right that you have no obligation to live anyone’s idea of the college life except your own. Frankly, I wish more students were like you.

  4. bbwcarolyn · September 14, 2011

    I majored in Chemistry and went to college like you did, 2 years at a community college and 4 years working and attending a university. It can be done and doing interesting, well-paid work is the reward. I’d like to encourage you to continue, onward and upward!

    One note of advice – make sure you take Calculus/Differential Equations before you take Physical Chemistry; you need the math to do the work.

    Good Luck!!

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