Higher education means much more than a piece of paper

Contributing WriterApril 14, 2014 

Adults would ask me, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” And my mom would answer, “Go to college.”

This almost nonchoice destined me for a post-high school education. Although I liked school, I didn’t really know exactly why I was going to college. I wanted to think that a degree would expand my view and better my life, but others would tell me I was just paying for a piece of paper.

For some skeptics, the degree is just a piece of paper on top of a pile of debt. But the value of college was far more than economic in my case.

My sophomore year, I transferred to the University of Puget Sound, which I felt unqualified for. “Only really smart people go to UPS,” was the word around town. But with a good financial aid package, this was an opportunity I could not turn down.

My first year at UPS, I remember struggling in my math classes. I was eager to learn, but too ashamed to go to my professors for help. I didn’t want to reveal how much I didn’t know, so I kept my pride intact at the expense of my grades.

In other classes, I would sometimes literally shake in front of the class during presentations, thinking my deficiencies were being exposed. My preparation would erode in the face of an audience and my composure give way to nerves.

One day we were summarizing other students’ work in my communications class. The paper I had to summarize made no sense to me. Instead of telling the professor, “Sorry, but this paper is one grade level above my reading comprehension,” I resorted to generalities. It didn’t work; the professor used me to point out how not to summarize a paper. Mercifully without naming me, he re-enacted my stumbling, inarticulate, shallow summary in front of the class. As if I weren’t already embarrassed enough.

But these same self-doubts ultimately became a source of confidence. Later that semester, the very same professor pulled me aside to tell me how much he loved one of my papers. What a difference a semester can make. With each passing term, I felt more confident in my abilities.

By my senior year, I would no longer question myself while standing in front of the class. I could lead 50-minute presentations without notes, feeling more like the teacher than the student. When I had questions, I would go to my professors. None of it came with the flick of a switch. It was a matter of work, learning and opportunity. Now that I’ve come out the other side, I’ve got something priceless. Yes, I still have those student loans and a tough job market to face. But I also have a broader view of my capabilities and a confidence I didn’t leave behind in a classroom. That’s a lot more than a piece of paper.

Ben Kastenbaum of Tacoma, a graduate of Stadium High School and the University of Puget Sound, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at benkastenbaum@gmail.com.

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