Twenty years out of college…

17 minute read

July 12, 2023, 12:20 PM

This year marks twenty years since I graduated from college, and in seeing all of the people posting stuff about college graduations and such on Facebook these last few months, it’s made me realize that I have a lot to say about my college experience.  It’s one of those things where I wish that I had known then what I do now, and it makes me wonder how things might have gone if I had reached the same present as today, but knowing what I know now.

It’s worth noting that with the passage of time, I have come to view my college years in an increasingly negative light.  In the moment, as documented in my College Life website, which now serves as an archive of what was once a section of the main website, I was having a pretty good time and enjoying life – or at least that’s the public face that I tried to put on about it.  The truth is that I never felt a sense of belonging there, my performance caused me to develop a major inferiority complex while there, and I coped with the stress of the environment in unhealthy ways.  I believe that the root cause of all of my difficulties was a then-undiagnosed case of autism.  However, high-functioning cases of autism like I have still weren’t really looked for and diagnosed like they are today.  I was not formally diagnosed diagnosed with autism until 2022 at the age of 41, when I finally decided to put the question to rest.

First, though, when it came to my deciding whether or not to go to college, that was never really a decision.  My parents had determined, practically from conception, that I would go to college, and that was that.  When it’s been drilled into your head that you were going to college like it was a commandment from on high or something for your entire life, that’s just what you did, largely from not knowing any better, and that you would then get a “college job” after getting that degree.  So growing up, any thoughts that I might have interest in fields that didn’t require a college education were more or less, quashed and any exploration of those fields was discouraged because that conflicted with my parents’ plan to send me to college.  It was also strongly implied that any path that did not lead to a college degree was a failure, because it didn’t live up to my parents’ expectations for me.  It caused me to think that the people who went down the vocational track in school were failures, because they couldn’t get into college.  I understand that my parents wanted what they thought was best for me, and they considered a college education to be that thing, but the mindset that they inadvertently instilled was quite toxic, and it took many years to unlearn.  I suppose that was something of a failure on their part, because with my now being the same age as they were when they were raising me, they almost definitely knew better about jobs that didn’t require a college degree, but that’s not what they instilled in me, intentionally or not.

So with that in mind, I was on the college track in high school, because I was going to college, because that’s just how it was.  I had no idea what I wanted to do when school was eventually done, but that wasn’t seen as all too important.  There was a vague idea that since I knew my way around a computer, I would study computers in school and do something like that as a job, but that wasn’t too fleshed out.  What no one – myself included – realized back then was that the technical stuff for me was always a means to some other end, e.g. I wanted to communicate, and the tech was what helped me do that.  That still holds true today.  I know enough about web design in order to build this website, but I do not consider myself a “real” web designer by any means.  The end is Schumin Web, after all, and web design is merely the means to get there.  Additionally, just because I was decent with something didn’t mean that I wanted to do it as a career.  I would never do web design professionally, because I don’t particularly like doing it.  Truth be told, I tend to treat it as a necessary evil that you have to do in order to make a website (and if you’ve ever wondered why the site hasn’t been significantly redesigned in over a decade, that’s why).  About the only people that I would ever do web design for would be for family, for no money.  And even then, I’m making no guarantees about anything, because my knowledge is limited to what I learned for Schumin Web and whatever I could scrounge up online to accomplish what I was trying to do.  In other words, I’ll do my best, but I know where my limits lie.

My senior year of high school was a bit scary for me, because it was like the moment of truth.  It was a judgment day of sorts, as I found out what college I would get to go to, or if I would have to go to Blue Ridge Community College (which my parents would have viewed as a failure, as a last resort if I wasn’t accepted to a four-year school), i.e. whether my efforts in school were a success or a failure.  I ultimately got accepted into JMU, and so that was that.  I had succeeded, and would advance to the next level: college.

In college, I did not see the same amount of success that I was accustomed to seeing in high school.  I was used to getting As, Bs, and the occasional C in high school (and would be roundly criticized by my parents for the Cs).  My first semester of college, across my five classes, I averaged a 2.0 exactly.  I was still in good standing academically, but I was sitting exactly on the line between good standing and academic probation.  I did not like having to explain that grade report to my parents, and I really heard about it from them, being told that this was not my best work, that I wasn’t working hard enough, and so on.  Truth is, I was working quite hard on it, but as I’ve said before, hard work does not automatically equal good work.  I imagine that we can all think of a time that we’ve worked very hard to produce very crappy results.  Regardless, though, I really didn’t appreciate the heavy criticism, because they didn’t understand how much internal pressure I had been putting on myself to perform, and how frustrating it was when I was not performing to my own expectations, let alone theirs.  In other words, I’m hard enough on myself, so I don’t need anyone else chiming in, because trust me, (A) whatever you’re saying, I have already said to myself on multiple occasions, and (B) I can’t tell my little internal monologue to go away like I can other people.  Still, it always made the end of the semester very stressful for me, because I knew that there would be a confrontation coming, and I didn’t like that, because I was already stressed enough about it.

I believe that in hindsight, I didn’t really ever learn how to study when I was in high school.  Everything came easily to me in high school, and so I never really had any need to learn how to study like I meant it.  It was just a matter of taking in information through classes, supplemented by the textbook, and then regurgitating said information on the tests.  That didn’t work as well in my first semester, producing a C performance, but by the time that you’re in college, everyone just assumes that you’ve got this studying thing down pat.  I also came to learn, still in hindsight, that what you don’t know can definitely hurt you, because I didn’t know that I didn’t know how study, and not knowing that really harmed me because I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, since I was doing everything that I had done that had previously worked in the past.

I also had the same problems with the reading in college as I did in high school English class.  We were expected to consume the material from the textbooks in such massive amounts in such a short time that, much like the literature in high school English class, I could sit there and physically read it, but nothing would sink in.  Except now, unlike in high school, it was multiplied by five.  I trust that you see the problem.  I know now that I consume information at a slower, more thoughtful pace, and can only process small bits at a time, but I only recognized that about myself in 2013 when I was reading up for the CDL test.  I certainly didn’t know that back then, and if I had known that, I probably could have addressed it.

Then there was the inferiority complex that I developed in college.  I knew full well that I had a 2.0 average after my first semester.  I was also in the College of Business at that time, and in order to formally be admitted into a major in the College of Business in your junior year, you had to have a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5.  My 2.0 was not going to work for that, so I needed to work on that GPA in order to meet my goals.  I remained in the business program despite my GPA, because I felt like I could get it where I needed it to be by the time that it mattered, and that working on major classes rather than general education classes would probably be a boost for my GPA, because it was working towards the major rather than whatever subjects JMU wanted us to take in order to be well-rounded.

However, the problem was that I was then in a program where my path to success was blocked.  And I was surrounded by students who seemed a lot more confident than me in their studies and who, presumably, were doing a lot better than me.  That led to a very nagging feeling that everyone else around me had better grades than me and that I was the worst student there.  And considering my GPA, I also couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that I really did not belong in the business program at all because I did not meet their academic requirements, which were specifically designed to weed people out.  I always felt that the higher GPA requirement above and beyond simply being in good academic standing was unfair, because it penalized you for classes that had nothing to do with your major, and if you didn’t do well in classes that had nothing to do with the business program, it would lock you out of your major.  And truth be told, my major GPA was higher than my overall GPA, but that’s not what they looked at back then (that has since changed).  I had no reason to think that I wouldn’t do just fine in the program had I been allowed to continue in it to the classes that actually had to do with my declared major, but my performance in classes that I had no interest in that had nothing to do with my major held me back.  In other words, classes that had nothing to do with my major locked me out, and therefore, I was denied the opportunity to even try.

That feeling of inferiority carried on outside of the College of Business.  At any university function, I felt inferior to all of the other students around me, because my GPA was so low.  Same thing just walking around campus.  I felt inferior, and just assumed that everyone else was doing better than me, and as a result, I ended up cementing and internalizing that feeling of inferiority.  I recognize now that I probably wasn’t the only student who was struggling and barely squeaking by, but I didn’t know that at the time, and it felt quite isolating.  My parents also made sure to indicate that they were displeased with my performance, which just compounded things, along with the pressure that I was already putting on myself to perform and then being frustrated because my efforts were not meeting my own expectations.  That really takes a hit on your morale, and I used junk food as a way to cope with that stress.  Let’s just say that because of that stress eating, I knew the vending machines on campus really well, and could tell you which vending machines sold what.

Meanwhile, no one drove home that feeling like I was inferior to my peers and a failure more than Mecca Marsh, my hall director at Potomac Hall.  Forget for a moment all of the gaslighting that she engaged in with me over everything related to my work as a resident advisor.  One of Mecca’s favorite tactics was where, after I discussed some situation with her, she would tell me that what I had observed about certain situations was not what actually happened, but rather, it was just my perception of what happened, strongly implying that what I had observed was wrong, while also giving me the “official” Mecca-approved® version of the situation.  In hindsight, it was the textbook definition of gaslighting, though the term was not in use back then.  But forget all of that for a moment.  Residence Life would be advised of their student employees’ grades because continued employment was conditioned on maintaining a certain GPA, and when mine slipped beneath that threshold in the spring semester of my junior year, probably due to a combination of my usual struggles as well as my having no direction in my college career at that time because of my problems with the College of Business, Residence Life got notified, and they put me in the hot seat.  As if I didn’t have enough stress from my parents and myself about my academic performance, now I also had my employer up my ass about my grades.  The only difference is that while my parents had a vested interest in my academic performance, I felt like Residence Life, and Mecca Marsh in particular, crossed a major line with their attempts to “help” me with my grades.  I neither needed nor wanted their “assistance”, and told them to lay off, as I considered it out of bounds for an employer, even if the employer was a university department.  The way I saw it, academics were “life” while Residence Life was “work”, and there needed to be a separation between the two.  Therefore, they needed to stay on their side of that work-life separation, but they didn’t respect that boundary at all, despite my protestations.  Mecca used every opportunity that she could find to make sure that I knew that she thought that I was a poor student, and her “assistance” only served to cause more frustration, largely because she was unqualified to provide the assistance that I needed, but she didn’t know that, and was too full of a misguided sense of pride to admit that she had no clue.  I realize now that Mecca was also dealing with her own issues at the time, but just like Sharon Bradley in elementary school, that was still no excuse for her behavior, gaslighting me about practically everything, and attempting to forcibly provide academic “assistance” after explicitly being told that her help was not wanted.  Funny how Residence Life was all about treating students like adults, and yet there was Mecca treating me like a child who didn’t know how to handle their own affairs.  “Stay in your lane” and “respect boundaries” is just sound advice all around, and it’s a shame that Mecca Marsh was unwilling to respect that.

That whole inferiority complex that I had developed over how I viewed my academic performance compared to others was another reason why I didn’t go to graduation: because I didn’t want to go in feeling like I was the lowest performer there, and that others had “earned” it more than I had and therefore had more right to it than me.  In other words, I didn’t want to be around people that I felt inferior to.  That was not my idea of a good time.  Because of that, as far as I was concerned, if I had gone, the celebration would have been ruined before it ever started, so there was no sense going through with it if I would have been unhappy the entire time.  It might have been a happy event for most people… but not for me.  I would have been miserable the entire time, especially when seeing other students decked out with cords and other adornments on their gowns, while mine would have been completely plain, just like it was in high school.  I had no desire to deal with that again, so I didn’t.  I believe that any reasonable person in my situation would have done the same, and I really resented the way that my parents tried to force my attendance at graduation when I had explicitly stated that I didn’t want to go, even if I couldn’t necessarily articulate why at the time.

Watching the way that my career has unfolded in the decades since, one thing really sticks out to me: I really didn’t need to go to college at all for the kind of work that I enjoy doing.  Going to college straight out of high school was probably a mistake, and possibly even held me back, because I was in college preparing for something and not doing particularly well at it, while I could have been out in the workforce gaining valuable experience.  But I didn’t know that back then, because it had been drilled into me for so long that I was to go to college after high school.  And the problem with the way that a lot of people treat college these days is that it’s a de facto 13th through 16th grade.  Kids are going to college straight out of high school, and they have no idea what they want to do with their lives or their careers.  So they’re essentially investing thousands of dollars for a degree that is completely “on spec”.  I certainly had no idea what I wanted to do right out of high school, and there was no refinement of that through college.  We had a vague idea that I should do something with computers because I knew my way around a PC pretty well, but I was never quite comfortable with computer science or computer information systems as a major, and I really couldn’t see myself doing that as a career.  However, at the time, I sort of dismissed that as “what do I know”.  I completed my degree, worked at Walmart for a while, and then got my first “real” job at Food & Water Watch, where a college degree was required, but the job was one that someone could have easily performed without a degree.  That should give someone pause about requiring a degree as a matter of course, especially since any degree would do to satisfy the requirement.  What Food & Water Watch was essentially doing with the degree requirement was some level of socioeconomic gatekeeping, keeping people of lower socioeconomic status out of their organization for not meeting the degree requirements because they couldn’t afford college, because apparently, only people who were well off enough to afford college were allowed to have jobs.  It was very elitist of them, and it’s not like they paid very well to begin with.  When I worked at Food & Water Watch, I was always worrying about money, and as long as I remained with them, the money worries would continue.  That was also a place where I felt inferior to the people around me, just like in college.  I didn’t like that feeling, but I needed that job in order to make a living, so I ended up staying there for a little more than six years, when it had become clear that my welcome had finally run out.  But that feeling takes a toll on a person after a while.  I felt so out of place in that kind of setting.  I did not thrive in an office environment.  I soon realized that the “college job” life that I had spent my entire life preparing for sucked.  Plus with so many people going to college straight out of high school, the value of a college degree had fallen considerably compared to what it was worth when my parents had finished college.

All that said, I now believe that my going to college was a complete waste of time.  You really get out of college what you put into it.  If you’re only going to college because you feel like you’re supposed to, or worse, because you were told that you were supposed to, without any regard to what you’re trying to accomplish in life by attending, you’re not going to get much out of it because you didn’t bring any goals with you to provide some direction.  It’s just 13th through 16th grade in that case, and all you’re really doing is delaying adulthood.  I probably would have benefitted from taking some time away from school after graduating high school in order to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and get a sense of what kind of career I would want to have, and then formulate a plan for how to get there.  In other words, I should have worked my job at the phone company full-time while taking a much more measured approach to planning for my future career aspirations instead of just running straight into college.  And after taking the time to determine what I wanted to do with my life, if going to college fit into that equation, then so be it, and I would have a purpose to being there, i.e. this is what I want to accomplish at the end of the day, and college will help me reach those goals.  That part is important.  The degree should not be the ultimate goal, which I feel is the way that too many people treat it.  Rather, the degree should be treated as a means to reach a further end, such as a career doing whatever.  When the degree is the end in and of itself, as was the case for me, you end up on an aimless trajectory in college, because you don’t know what you want to do with your career, since the entire focus of schooling was on collecting degrees – first high school, then college, and for some, further beyond that.  My parents more or less set that scenario up in my case, because they had decided before I was born that I was going to go to college.  There was never any thought given to what I wanted to do with my career, why I was going to college, or what I was ultimately trying to get out of my college education.  The whole idea was to go and get a bachelor’s degree, i.e. obtaining a degree was the end goal.  But now, knowing what kind of work that I like doing, I really didn’t need to go to college at all.  College doesn’t make a person smart, nor does it demonstrate that one is teachable.  Smart people are smart regardless of the level of education completed, just like I’ve seen some very highly educated people who are complete idiots.

I’ve found that with educational experiences, when I go in with specific goals, I do much better.  The best instance of this in my life was when I went back to school in 2014.  My goal was to get a job driving buses, and I had a specific company in mind that I wanted to work for, too.  To do that, I needed to learn how to drive a bus, and at the end of the course, I would get a license that stated that I was qualified to do so.  So I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of the class in order to meet that goal of getting a job as a bus operator, and everything was done in furtherance of that goal.  And unlike during my undergraduate experience, I absolutely killed it during the CDL class.  If I didn’t succeed with the CDL class, after all, there would be no job, and I would be in a bad situation financially, since at the time, I was living off of savings.

Then there were two examples of trainings that I attended while I was at Food & Water Watch where there were no real goals, and, unsurprisingly, I got very little out of those trainings.  One was a weeklong training session where three of us were learning the Plone content management system in order to help maintain the organization’s website.  At the time, I questioned why I needed to attend the training at all.  After all, I had been with the organization for a little more than a year at that point, and I had very little to do with the website itself other than posting job advertisements and adding and removing staff bios.  The other two people were communications staff whose jobs largely involved curating the content on the website.  For technical matters, we had a guy whose whole business was built around Plone, and the organization had no plans to get rid of him.  In other words, he was the Plone guy, and I was not that guy.  The class was also not about how to be a user of Plone, but rather, after the first day, it was so technical that all three of us that had gone to this training were completely lost by the second day.  We knew that none of what they were discussing for the last four days of the course had anything to do with our jobs, and never would be part of our jobs.  So for four out of the five days, I was sitting in this classroom doing other things on my laptop, salty that my regular work wasn’t getting done because I had been sent to this training instead.  The other instance was when my boss sent me to a two-day time management seminar.  I had taken the week of Thanksgiving off to go see family, and on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, while I was out with my mother, I got a call from my boss.  He told me that he was sending me to a two-day time management seminar on the Monday after Thanksgiving, i.e. my first day back to work.  Talk about something where I had no clue about why I was there.  No one had ever communicated any concerns to me about time management.  All I got was a call telling me that I was going, and there was no discussion about what concerns there were about my time management skills, and what I needed to get out of the seminar.  Unsurprisingly, with no discussion about goals for the training, I got absolutely nothing out of that seminar.  Then my boss didn’t bring it up again for more than a year, at that time telling me that he hadn’t seen any improvement in my time management following that seminar that he sent me to.  I found that to be an unfair criticism, considering that he had never expressed any concerns about my ability to manage time before that, he didn’t tell me why he was sending me, and hadn’t explained to me what I needed to get out of it.  I’m pretty sure that he thought that sending me to an outside seminar would just magically cure whatever issues that he might have seen in my performance, without communicating anything with me.  And in the end, he got back exactly what he put into it: nothing.  No wonder why I thought that he was an idiot.  Between the two trainings, that was more than a full workweek’s worth of time wasted being sent to trainings that I had no business going to.  My boss was very good at wasting everyone’s time and the donors’ money on useless trainings.

Of course, you know what they say: hindsight is 20/20.  A lot of stuff that I discussed here relies on information that I did not know or understand at the time, or that was unknowable back then.  For one thing, none of us knew or suspected back then that I was autistic.  Knowing this now, a lot of things suddenly fell into place that were question marks or otherwise mystifying before.  It makes me wonder how things might have gone had we had that diagnosis twenty or more years sooner than when it finally did come.  I wonder how my college experience might have gone had I received the support that I probably should have had back then.  If I had an earlier diagnosis and gotten the proper support, I wonder if I might look back on my college experience fondly today, as compared to the decidedly negative view that I actually have of it.  Considering all of this, though, I do think that we probably did the best that we could come up with at that time, but if I were to do it all over again, I would have definitely made different decisions and taken different paths.

Categories: Autism, JMU, Myself, Work