Next week I will begin the last year of my undergraduate degree. Not my fourth year, but my tenth. Not at age 21 or 22, but at 34 years old. I will be 35 when I graduate. When I graduate it will have been exactly a decade, down to the week, since I first entered a college classroom as a student. It’s been a long path, but I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I did not go to school to get a better paying job, though I hope that will be a nice side-effect. I had a reliable job (which I hated) that I left to go to school full time. I also didn’t go in order to get some specific job that I wanted. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what my major would be for quite awhile.
I went because I love science. I decided to pursue a degree because there are limits to self-education, and I had reached mine. I have continued to go because my love of science has only grown as I have learned more. I’m going to keep going so that I can share my passion for science with others.
When I was working that reliable job I was allowed to listen to whatever I wanted on headphones all day, 50 hours or more a week. At first I listened to music, but my musical taste is so limited as to be laughable. There were only so many times I can listen through the complete works of Barenaked Ladies before it was time for something else. I moved on to podcasts and audiobooks, and found myself returning over and over to great science podcasts and every science audiobook I could find.
I loved science in high school, but my adolescent experience was not conducive to learning and I didn’t graduate high school. While others with my level of interest took AP classes and would go on to college and advanced degrees, I was busy trying to survive. Through earbuds I rediscovered that passion, soaking in all of the new knowledge I could find. I learned the basics of astronomy, the history of evolutionary biology, and some snippets of materials science. I built up a solid lay-person’s foundation of knowledge of many areas of the sciences with a particular emphasis on the history of science. I was fascinated by all of it.
Eventually, I found myself getting the same material again and again. The sensation of new discovery and the excitement of new understanding faded. There were fewer and fewer great books for me to find intended for an audience like me – the interested non-expert. I found myself wanting to delve deeper, but kept running into the same problem. I would wonder “but why is that?” and find that the answers were no longer so easy to figure out.
Almost always the answer to “but why?” was “because math.” Science communicators tend to stop where the math begins largely because they want their material to be understood by a wide audience, including those who do not have a strong grasp of mathematics. That is fantastic for getting people interested in a subject and for sharing a basic understanding of it, but I clearly wanted something more.
I’d had a rough ride with math growing up even though I have an aptitude for it. It was clear that if I wanted to better understand the scientific subjects that interested me I would need to learn math. That’s pretty difficult to do outside of a traditional classroom. So I took some math courses and worked towards a bookkeeping certificate at my local community college.
It turned out that unlike my experience as a teenager, I loved school. It wasn’t easy, but it was a totally different experience to take classes as an adult. When I got close to done with that first certificate I quit my job and went back to school fulltime to do my general degree requirements for a Bachelor’s Degree, followed by transferring to a University to complete the degree.
Ultimately I chose to go to school because I discovered I love learning, and once I started I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and lectures about subjects that fascinated me. I couldn’t stop going to classes once I started. I still feel that way, and am looking at graduate schools in science journalism so that I can pass on the passion I have for science, and particularly environmental science, to others.
When strangers hear that I’m working on my BS in my 30’s they often respond that it’ll pay off for me. “Oh good, you’ll be able to get a good job then.” Frankly, it’s condescending and rude. I left a decent paying job for school, and I may or may not end up benefiting financially from education in the long run. However, I’m certain that I am already benefiting intellectually and emotionally from furthering my education. Learning enriches my life, and for me that is reason enough.