Yesterday was graduation day for the two state universities in town. That brought on some reminiscing about my own college graduation some 40 years ago.
My high school and college graduations were very different. I was happy to finish high school and come to the U.S. for college. I found high school to be psychologically oppressive and intellectually boring. I welcomed the freedom and challenge of college, especially since I’d be half way around the world.
For me, college was the most exhilarating four years of my life, intellectually and otherwise. By the end of my junior year, I was the alpha male of my small campus and I liked it. There is something about power and status that is…captivating… especially to a young person seeking identity in a new world.
Senior year was a bittersweet mix of the satisfaction of achievement along with unease that I would be starting “from scratch” again when I graduated. Because I didn’t fully grasp that I was nowhere near the same person I was four years earlier, I was uncertain whether I could replicate my college achievements in “the real world.”
I did not walk in the graduation ceremony to accept my diploma from the college president. I knew what my class would do if I appeared on stage. While a final hurrah would be a nice parting tribute, I wasn’t sure I could emotionally handle what it also signified. As did Gen. MacArthur, I thought it better to just fade away… (While I regularly attend my high school reunions, I do not attend my college reunions.)
This year’s college graduates are facing a horrendous job market, something I can empathize with. I graduated during the 1973-75 recession, when unemployment reached 9%. Fortunately, I found a job five months later. And it was despite my formal degree, not because of it.
Then, as now, the federal government had undertaken a “stimulus” program and I was hired for a job with the St. Petersburg (Florida) Grants Department. I knew nothing about grants but the director was attracted to my three years, ending as Editor-in-Chief, with the college student newspaper. (If he had read my editorials, I’m not sure I’d have been hired.)
That experience fit his interest in starting a grants newsletter to alert City officials to grant opportunities as well as publicize what grants the office had been obtaining. (That personal experience, plus general philosophy, is why I object to the “college is job preparation” perspective of “education” which the Legislature is pushing by seeking to “incentivize” folks into science, math and other “vocational” majors rather than liberal arts.)
I could not realize then that this accidental involvement with government and grants was the beginning of a 32 year career in government, of which 30 years would be in grants. Many of my friends had specific ideas about what they wanted to do after college: lawyer, doctor, etc. I had no idea.
Today, I read that many lawyers have decided to go into something more “meaningful” and I know many doctors are frustrated with health insurance requirements, both Medicare and private insurance. While some of my college classmates may be having career frustrations, I’ve always enjoyed my jobs. So the idea of selecting a career before graduating college is not one I support. Life is not so predictable.
My boss kept a chalk board which he used to list each grant that the office obtained so he could provide an annual total to management which justified our existence. When I remarked about how many millions of dollars were coming in, he mentioned that the list did not include many more millions in sewer construction grants which the City received. These grants were handled by outside consultants because they were very complex and technical. That was in 1975.
In 1983, after a stint in graduate school for a Master’s in Public Administration and two years as a budget coordinator for a county, I returned to grants. This time it was not with a local government but with state government. My job was with the sewer grants program my first boss had mentioned to me eight years earlier. A small world indeed…
As a first level supervisor, I was managing our bureau’s section responsible for grant applications, payments and other administrative functions for an annual program of $100 million in federally funded grants to Florida cities and counties. Ironically, one of the grants was to the city I once worked in, for a “reuse” project to irrigate green areas of my college campus using treated wastewater. The “reuse” water was free, so the college saved thousands of dollars in water costs.
I saw a lot of “firsts” over ten years. The small city of Kissimmee, gateway to Disney World, needed a new sewer plant for all those hotels lined up along Highway 192. How much did they need for all that current and future flushing over the next 20 years? A plant with a capacity of 100 million gallons per day.
I also saw the first sewer plant for Key West in the mid 80s. Before that plant, when you flushed in Key West, it went straight into the ocean. This procedure was in keeping with the fundamental premise of sewage treatment: the solution to pollution is dilution.
In 1993, when the program converted to a loan program, I moved to my current job because it is similar to my previous job. Now I administer grants to rural local governments for community and economic development.
During 17 years, I’ve been to probably 90% of every city in Florida with a population under 50,000. Many of them have less than 2,500 residents, a budget under $100,000 and only one or two traffic lights. So when they recieve a $600,000 grant…
I regularly see the results of my job, whether it is new sewer lines so folks can get off septic tanks or new jobs. I’ve set July 20, 2013, as my retirement date but it’s possible I’ll retire a few months before then.
I’m not even a first level supervisor in my current job, although I did turn down the program manager job (which I did not apply for) three times. The reason? The formal hierarchy means little to me because in the informal hierarchy I am the alpha male and have been for the last 10 years. And the pay increase wasn’t going to be that great to warrant the hassle I foresaw of being a manager.
Because of regular turnover in management at all levels, and my role as principal architect of four major program rule revisions, three levels of management seek my advice when a situation becomes…sticky. They know that if there’s a way to do something that appears cannot be done, I can show them how to do it since it is “my” rule so I know where the loopholes and technicalities are.
I’m not at all envious of today’s college graduates. Even if the economy was booming, I’m convinced I came of age in a great time – the 60’s and 70’s. I saw the first person walk on the moon. No music will come close to the greats I grew up with – Stones, Beatles, Doors, Hendrix, et. al. Politically, it was a time of hope that many things could be accomplished. Not so today in any of these areas…
When I look back, it’s not with any regrets about “coulda, shoulda,” but with satisfaction that there is nothing of any consequence I’d do differently. I”m glad that I don’t believe in reincarnation. Living one life is challenging enough. Having to do it again and again is not something I’d enjoy.
So college grads, don’t think I wish I could do it again. Good luck to you! I really mean that, because I don’t care how smart you may be… a lot of life is outside your control. But you have to become old to learn that.