Phases of a Degree
When I began college, I knew the most basic commands of MS-DOS, but everyday life involved card catalogs, typewriters, spiral notebooks and correction fluid. During my second stint in the post-secondary world, I utilized floppy discs in a clunky desktop PC to compose my term papers, but the printed dot-matrix results are barely legible and research still entirely occurred within the four walls of a library. During the third, and successfully final, home stretch towards my twenty-year bachelor’s degree, my pretty yellow laptop and the world wide web allowed me to understand cloud formations, examine the nuances of the Second World War, recreate the development of Latin America, follow the expansion of the America West, and peek inside the history of a national park from my own home. Now that’s progress.
I never understood the passion college graduates retain for their alma maters. Paying for college always registered to me as a business transaction: my money for an education. The schools I attended never stirred my enthusiasm for any given mascot or fight song or athletic conference affiliation. When life would get off track, I’d splash water on my face and get myself back in school, whatever school best suited my academic needs. My focus had always been on the obtainment of knowledge, the securing of a degree, and moving on to the next great adventure, not celebrating the four-year experience, but the four-year achievement. It just took eighteen years longer than I expected, and when the diploma arrived in the mail, neither the school nor I owed each other anything more.
In my academic pursuits, the last thirty semester hours brought me the most joy. My age, my motivation, my determination, and my discipline had all seen noted increases. Taking classes online felt supremely comfortable, and I paced myself so the final semester ended with my diploma being awarded less than twenty-fours before my first-born graduated high school. My self-propelled race to the finish line kept my class loads, my evenings and weekends, and my daily schedule full. For the final five semesters, I never spoke in person to my classmates, I never visited the campus library, and only once did I meet one of my professors. So for that one occasion, a class that could easily be considered the high-water mark of my degree, I met my professor at a small copse of trees on a historic battlefield in Pennsylvania.
For one semester hour, or one Remembrance Day weekend, I bundle up in my warmest winter wear, avoid any measurable snowfall and walk in the footsteps of the soldiers who spent the first three days of July 1863 fighting for the future of the United States. On the tranquil hills that now remain, with monuments and markers across every sightline, I emerge from my laptop education and absorb the stories, the strategic decisions, the advances and retreats, and the fight for the rumored depot of shoes that were said to have been stored somewhere near this conflux south of Carlisle. But neither the Southern Rebels nor the Northern Yankees found this to be a place to rest their weary feet, this place instead burst alive with combat and cannon fire, smoke and sacrifice. I may have only needed one hour of academic credit to complete my online degree, and despite the distant travel, the cost, and the commitment, I still believe I have it far easier at this national battlefield than the combatants who came before me. The tiniest fragment of my lengthy degree pursuits could not have been complete, or as meaningful, without the short time I spent on Little Round Top viewing the entire placid fields to the north, which meant so much to our nation nearly 150 years ago. I guess I owe my academic institution a debt of gratitude for my one day of education at Gettysburg.