My Choice: Finish School or Survive

By Erin Lynn, Academic Learning Specialist, New York College Of Podiatric Medicine

I basically grew up on a college campus. My mother was a student services professional; my father was a professor. I attended sporting events and plays, became friendly with the academic faculty and staff, and spent my summers on campus in various educational and artsy camps. I could not wait until I would finally be a college student, and after high school, I wasted no time. During the summer after graduation, I sat in my first class at 7:30 a.m. to learn college algebra. I was stoked.

I began my college education as a double major in music performance for voice and piano. Since my parents were employees, and I was awarded music scholarships for both of my programs, my tuition was $5 per credit hour and fully covered. I completed the summer and fall semesters, losing a little momentum along the way, and then withdrew during the spring over medical complications. I further justified the withdrawal because I was not sure I wanted to continue with those programs, but to be honest, I really was not sure I wanted to be in college at all. After spending my life on that campus, I already felt burned out. I could not even bring myself to talk to my mentors or seek counseling to change my mind. Or maybe I did not want to. Instead, I just quit.

During what was meant to be a short break, I began to reconsider what I wanted to do with my life. Music had always been something I had enjoyed, and I thought I was good at it. But doubt crept in when I started to realize that some of my peers were equally as competent or better, and I was not sure I would be competitive. Stubbornly, it had not occurred to me that the purpose of an arts education would be to hone my skills and develop me into a more proficient musician. It just felt like failure, and I did not have a backup plan.

I chose to stay unenrolled for an extended time and work instead, and next thing I knew, I was getting married and starting a family. I waited until my son was almost two years old before I returned to the classroom, but by then, everything was different. My tuition was no longer $5 a credit hour, and since I changed my major, I no longer had my scholarships. Now, I had responsibilities. I was a mom. I had to pay rent, bills, buy groceries, and pay for daycare. Fast forward even a little more, and I became a single mom with the full weight of parental and financial pressures on my shoulders alone.

The most I could do at first was attend school part-time. I was eligible for grants and work study, both of which I took advantage of, and I worked three part-time jobs to make ends meet. It all was a little too much to handle, so I made the decision to begin taking out all the student loans they were willing to give. I did not appreciate what that would mean long-term, and I never asked, but at that time, it was everything I needed to start attending school as a full-time student again. I caught a bit of a break when I was offered a full-time, salaried position with benefits as a secretary on campus, but with limited online options at that time, that meant once again going back to being a part-time student.

By this point, it had been 10 years since I first became a student. It felt odd to sit in class with freshmen now who seemed so young and inexperienced with life. At times, I felt embarrassed and ashamed. Once the school began offering more online options, I changed my major again, anxious to just be done. I continued to work and attended classes full-time, finally earning a B.A. in Sociology. Upon completion, I was subsequently promoted to a position that allowed me to work in a mentorship and advisership capacity for, primarily, at-risk, and nontraditional college students. I chose to continue my education once I became accustomed to my new role, enrolling in a graduate program for sociology. For the next few years, as I earned advanced academic accolades, I continued to be rewarded with more professional roles and responsibilities.

I became a woman on a mission. My new goal was to complete a terminal degree and capitalize on this wealth of experience I was gaining as a student services professional. Before I knew it, I was enrolled in a doctorate program, and it would only take two more years before all coursework was complete and I could begin working on my dissertation. I knew what I wanted to write and quickly churned out the first 3 chapters, excited to see the finish line so close. I had been a student off and on for 21 years; I was ready to be done. Unfortunately, my submitted dissertation chapters were met with disapproval and what felt like unrealistic expectations, and once again, those same feelings of failure and frustration I had as a freshman washed over me. I froze.

I ultimately abandoned the one dissertation topic about which I was incredibly passionate. I played around with other topics for a while, writing the first chapter for four other possibilities, but I could not stay committed to any of them. To add insult to injury, the department decided to tack on a “research fee,” which was not part of our original program fees, equivalent to the cost of one-hour of graduate-level credits per semester. For every semester we were writing, we would be charged this fee or risk being dismissed from the program. For the next two semesters, I simply paid the fee and made little progress toward completing my dissertation. I lacked all motivation.

While I was still trying to figure out what to do, a new department on campus was created, and I was asked to develop it as the director. This was the most significant position yet, and with a salary that was just high enough that I no longer needed to take out student loans! I was ecstatic, but I soon realized that this new position needed my full attention. Suddenly, my 40-hour work week turned to 50–60 hours, and I placed my dissertation on the back burner once more. I still had time, I reasoned, and I had not even settled on a new topic. I was also now getting my son settled into the start of his college journey and grappling with the emptiness of his absence.

My new job consumed me for the next 16 months, and then another opportunity presented itself, this time in New York City (NYC). Just as the last position had been, this was a role I would be responsible for developing, and my responsibilities accumulated quickly. Additionally, since my cost of living was so much higher, I added on an adjunct teaching role to earn a little extra money. It was…a lot. Trying to get adjusted to the new role(s), plus the three to four hours a day I spent commuting, meant I played around with my dissertation again only sparingly. I was certain that, once everything calmed down and I fell into a routine, I would get back to it and, eventually, I did. I decided on a new topic, wrote the first two chapters, and then, the pandemic hit.

The next three months were insanely busy with work, and once again, writing my dissertation was put on pause. After that short time, I learned my position would no longer be viable, and I was cut loose. It would be another five months after my termination before I had access to the dissertation, I had saved only to my work computer. I kept busy, doing everything I could to find a new job, but I was growing more depressed, anxious, and helpless. Trying to finish my program seemed like more pressure than I could handle. I reached out to my (new) advisor, begging for a break from both the academic and financial demands of my program, but I was told the best I could hope for was a slight extension.

A few days later, my advisor got back to me. I was given a year. That was it. Pandemic or not, I had to get it done or forget it. I escalated my concern, reaching out to the chair, asking for a semester off without penalty. I let her know I could not even afford to pay the tuition, made her aware of my mental health struggles and life circumstances, and just asked for a little leniency. I just needed one semester to get back on my feet, I pleaded, but I was denied. Meanwhile, I was frequently reminded that, if I would just finish my dissertation, it would probably be easier to find a job. So, I begrudgingly dove back into my writing, desperate to finish. I had invested too much time and money to not finish.

After nine months, things are looking up. I am finally employed again, back to three-hour commutes and 40-hour weeks, trying to build a job once again from its inception. I should soon be defending my dissertation proposal, too, which is a monumental step toward the completion of a journey that began some 26 years ago. It has been a path paved with hardship, much of it admittedly self-made, and glittered with perseverance. The lessons I learned continue to guide me as a student support specialist and student advocate, and I would be remiss if I did not share here the most significant of those lessons to encourage others to continue fighting, even when it feels impossible.

1. Be kind to yourself, be forgiving, and be patient. Find a balance that allows you to meet your goals without compromising your mental and /or physical health.

2. Do not compare your journey or your successes with those around you. Your personal worth is not determined by other people’s expectations.

3. Do not allow ego, fear, or complications to hold you back. Be realistic if you find that the path, you are heading down may not be achievable, but do not quit just because it is hard. Lean on others and use the resources available to succeed.

4. Learn how to advocate for yourself and identify those on your campus from whom you feel most comfortable seeking information and advice. Being a part of an educational community means you are not alone. Ask clarifying questions, and make sure you understand the gravity of the decisions you will make.

5. Time can (and will) get away from you at times, and it becomes far too easy to underestimate how our decisions and (in)action make things more difficult. We often seek solace in excuses, no matter how valid they feel at the time. But you can do this. When in doubt, see #1.

Erin Lynn is a higher education professional with a focus on student success and retention, currently serving as the Academic Learning Specialist for the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. ABD for the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, seeking to inspire systemic changes in effective and efficient student support services. Enjoys spending time with family, animals, traveling, and music. May be slightly obsessed with the musical Hamilton.

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