Reflection on Completing a Second Degree
Tomorrow I start my final class for my second degree, Bachelor of Science in Materials Science and Engineering. It has been a very, very long time coming, and is the last chapter of this phase of my life. I'm going to take some time and reflect on what I learned.
Many years ago, when I was just a kid, I knew what I wanted to be: a programmer. However as a kid I did not have access to the things that would help me achieve that goal. Unlike today, Linux and BSD simply weren't in the equation. The World Wide Web came into being while I was in High School, and the dissemination of information was poor. I did not have access to programming environments, programming literature, or a good public library. My high school was a bad school for an aspiring programmer.
In my senior year I decided to pursue a degree in my other interest, electronics, at a private for-profit school. I received a four-year bachelor's degree at this school (though it was not an engineering degree), and the things I learned shaped me into the person I am today.
Not long after graduating I landed my first gig in the semiconductor industry, which I have been in since.
Flash forward about a decade later, and I'm having a one-on-one with my then-current manager at my present employer. He discusses what my future career goals are, and he encourages me to take part in a co-op between my employer and a local state University and earn another bachelor's, this time a full engineering degree.
Sign me up, I say!
But the road is long and bumpy, as I will find out.
Part 1: Prerequisites
Before I can start a new degree at this school, I need to meet some prerequisites. Some credits will transfer to my new degree, mainly some core competency classes. Some will not. And some, it has been so long since I took them, I will need the refresher or I will fail.
Additionally, the classes I need to take, they are not offered online. They are only offered in person, either at the University (with horrible scheduling), or at the local community colleges.
I knew I had one option. Community college it is.
For the next year and a half at my community college, I immerse myself heavily into the core classes I need: mathematics (Calculus 1, 2, 3, and Differential Equations), Chemistry (intro and Chem 1 + labs), and Physics (mechanics and electromechanics). This plus working full time at my employer, 40+ hours a week.
Needless to say, this is grueling. From August of one year to December the next, almost every waking moment is consumed by school + work. This includes taking a summer class, to maximize my time.
It was during this time that I met my wife. I don't know how she put up with this schedule while we were dating, but she was awesome about it. I always tried to make time for her, too.
Finally, after 16 grueling months, I can start taking core classes at my university. And as an added bonus, they are online courses, except for exams which I can take via a proctor at work. This makes taking these classes more flexible and a bit less stressful, since I can take them at home.
Part 2: University Life
Once again I am required to take several classes at once, but at least now I can take them online and (almost) at my own pace. The way classes worked is this:
At the University, students follow the course curriculum at the normal pace. The professors will record the lectures live in class, upload them for me to watch, and provide all presentation material to me as we go. When students have exams, I have exams the same day.
This applies to labs too. Obviously I can't do labs remotely, but what I can do is write lab reports based on the data provided to me. If the data provided is wrong, that's ok, because I can still say “this is what was provided to me” and base calculations off of that.
This is pretty good, because I find that I am a terrible independent learner, and I need things to be paced out for me. I also learn best when it is someone teaching in a normal lecture environment.
Additionally, over the summer I have access to special courses taught by my employer that are worth University credit. It's equivalent to the classes taught at the University but tailored specifically for my employer. Which is good because I plan on sticking with this employer for a long time (they treat me quite well).
This is a hard schedule to keep up with, but somehow I pull through. I know that at most I can only take 3 classes at a time due to the intense courseload, work, and somehow squeezing time in for my girlfriend (future wife). But somehow, I make it work, and I get good grades to boot.
All is good, so far, until...
Part 3: Family Life
Me and my wife decide to get married. Surprising to us, she ends up getting pregnant very quickly, much sooner than we expected! On top of work, school, and marriage, now we need to quickly figure out how to juggle a kid into the equation. I make the decision to continue school until the kid is born, take a semester off, and resume where I left off. And its good too, because as any parent will tell you, raising a kid is hard mode automatically.
After taking a semester off, I resume my previous courseload. This is where I start to struggle. My wife continues to work mostly full time, as do I, and now there is a small child that divides our time together.
I'm not going to lie, its hard to find time to do school work when there isn't much time to begin with. Due to my and my wife's work schedules, my day consists of one of two things: Childcare for 12 hours a day (from when he wakes up until he goes to bed), or work for 12 hours a day (plus an hour before and after work for commute, food, and so on). Either way I also have housework to do, meal preperations, and finding time to be with my wife, and THEN I can do school work.
I struggle, I stress out, I feel swamped, and perpetually drained. It doesn't help that the course work is very intense and time consuming. Some professors are better than others at providing good course material, and some courses are much, much harder than others. I don't get more than a couple weeks off (due to the holiday break every winter) for about three years, until my senior project.
Somehow, due to sheer willpower on the part of myself and my wife, and utter determination, I'm at the end of the road. I just need one more class to complete my degree, and then this part of my life will be over and I can move on to the next. After this degree is complete, I can likely receive a promotion at work, which will hopefully bring enough money in for us to go down to a single income.
But ultimately, I prove to myself that I can complete a very exhausting program that spans many, many years. If I can complete this, I can complete anything.