I’m Glad I’m Not Graduating College

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.)

My college days

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.

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11 responses to “I’m Glad I’m Not Graduating College

  1. This was a great post and brought back some memories for me too. When I graduated from high school, there were around 300 people in my class, and each and every one walked onstage and received a diploma from the principle. At my college graduation, I don’t even know how many of us there were–maybe 1,000? I’m with you–the only reason I went was so my family could see me there. I took a book, which I concealed behind a program 🙂 Not only did you not walk on stage, they didn’t even call your name unless you graduated with honors. Then you stood up as a group, and the President read your names. I do seem to remember a few people walking onstage, who must have been the summa cum laudes. For everybody else, it was kind of “Congratulations–you’re done.” I consider the crowning achievement of my college years to be managing not to get myself arrested.

    • > my college graduation – maybe 1,000?

      Then you went to a relatively small college, and received a “real” education not an assembly line degree like the behemoths of UF and FSU pass out and where the probability of an undergrad meeting with a professor was worse than winning the Lottery. My high school class was 98; my college was about 200-250 and at the time we were the largest freshman class. I think the college may now have as many as 3,000 students.

      > managing not to get myself arrested

      I know a video of me and hundreds of others blocking a busy Tampa intersection during an anti-war march is sitting somewhere in an FBI basement….But my passport has always been renewed since 1970!

      • Ha! When I started, I did not cohsider it small. When I started in 1967, there were about 19,000 students. Which is roughtly about 2 1/2 times the size of the little towh I came from in North Carolina. I thought I was ready, but looking back, it was culture shock. I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was.

        • Huh? If your college graduating class had 1,000, and the college had 19,000 total….something’s weird about that math! One of those numbers is probably not right.

  2. “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…”

    While nostalgic reflections over the wonderful days of freedom that colleges offer is always fun( and most of us have great memories from whenever we went to college) you might be just a tad indulgent to think that the world changed more in those years than it did before them and that it can after them. I will concede that 1968 was a year that dramatically changed the world, there have been, and almost certainly will be, other times of equal or greater change. That was the time we remember because we were young and without real responsibility of accountability. Much like today’s wall street protesters.

    I offer the invention of the printing press as one example and the internet as another. 2011 was certainly a year of great global change driven by young people risking enormous personal loss to get a taste of the freedom we had on campus back in the day. The change was global and swept across the world via social media much like, but much faster than, the TV media of the 60’s and 70’s. Certainly radical political thought/action was prevalent via tweets and texts catching many of us with surprise at its breathtaking developmental speed.

    FN it is soooooooooooo like you to take a book under your gown. Lol! It was hot at Doak in June of 1972 people actually passed out and there was one heart attack. I came prepared with a six pack that I had frozen the night before.

    SC I never had a problem seeing professors when I had something to say after I completed my sophomore year(s). In fact I went for coffee and smokes with several. FSU did turn out some fairly competent graduates that became Governors, Astronauts, Nobel Winners, Phantom of the Opera, and cinema greats, not to mention the great philanthropic work done by the Athlete Millionaires. I think UF probably had some success too although I don’t care to itemize it.

    • I did not say it was the “greatest” time nor was I referring to any one “event.” Rather, it was a “great” time and I’m talking about the “gestalt” of the period, not just 1968. Inventing the printing press was a singular event; what else happened during the ten years around that time with social and political significance? Probably not much. When “country” boys have long hair and smoke pot 40+ years after the “hippies” were doing it, and derided for it, that’s evidence of how far the ripples have reached.

      As for public universities, of course they’ve had their share of notable folks, just because they graduated so many. Heck, if I push “all in” with 2-7 unsuited against AA, I’m going to win, over the long run, about 15% of the time. But, that doesn’t mean I should push all in with 2-7…

      As you know, when something is subsidized that creates a market distortion, which has happened with education because of public universities. Higher education is “consumed” out of proportion to what would happen if it were not subsidized. Which is why folks with college degrees are often underemployed, even in a good economy.

      I do not believe that employability is the purpose of college education, and historically that was never its purpose, but that is what most of its consumers believe / want. If we decoupled a college education from employability, and reserved “job training” for some other form of institution (a white collar version of a vo tech) how many folks would attend the former? Not many, because they’re just in college for the money, not an education.

  3. I’m very confident about the 19,000 number so it may be that the number of graduates that year is wrong…but it may not necessarly be that far off. How many people drop out of college before graduating? I’d say the freshman class was huge, and dropped off every year after that.

    • I would hope the attrition in your class was not so huge as to end up with only 1,000 graduates out of a “huge” freshman class. If so, there’s something going on there that is not good….

  4. Ha! Would you delete one of my responses please, which both inexplicably ended up as the first ones? WordPress Twilight Zone.

  5. To this day, if you were to offer me the opportunity for further education in any field of my choosing… I wouldn’t know what to pick. I fell into my career in the student loan industry never thinking it was for me or that I’d be any good at it. But I love it! And I AM good at it. I just hope my kids find similar opportunities to feel productive and happy and to be able to support themselves.

    • I suspect many, if not most, of us fell into our careers. And while there may be specific skills that may help in your (or anyone’s) job, I’m not sure a college education would make a difference. Other than a resume filler, there is almost nothing that I learned during my graduate classes that actually had any practical use in any of my three jobs since then.

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