Random Musings

Thankful for Failure: A Change in Life Paths

I’m not very good at the whole timing thing. I meant to write a Thanksgiving post and be cheesy in declaring what I had been thankful for this year. Of course, it is now December and I have completely switched gears to Christmas (only 21 days!). But it doesn’t change what I’m thankful for, especially as this year, it is a little bit different than my usual list.

This year, I’m thankful for failure.

I know, it’s a weird thing to say after I graduated from my dream university and then got into grad school last minute. And, in a week, I’ll be able to say that I officially survived a semester in grad school. However, in a week, I will also be able to say that I am no longer in grad school.

Yes, this is also (well, mainly) an announcement post that I’m withdrawing from grad school. Some people know, but now, anyone who wants to know can find out (and read so much more than they would ever care to know about it).

I have a lot of mixed emotions concerning this decision. I was super stoked to get into grad school. I got into a quaint–but very well run and awesome–university at a small town in the middle of nowhere, roughly 12 hours from home. I got accepted in late June, so I had to scramble to get enrolled, find an apartment, get everything figured out to teach a freshmen comp course, along with everything else that went into it. It was stressful, but I was excited. Finally getting everything arranged near the deadlines was a relief and the move itself was fun, even if it had bumps along the way. I moved into my first apartment, which, like so many aspects of my life, had character (that character being it was located between a trailer park and a truck stop, it didn’t have a/c or heat or a stove, it was 300 square feet, etc., etc.). I did have a killer landlord, though, and it was relatively quiet. My parents helped a ton to get it decorated and feel as close to homey as a box could feel. My Dad left, I went through colloquium to prepare for teaching and then grad school got underway.

It started out fine; stressful, but fine. But as the semester went on, the things got tougher, eventually to the point where I decided to withdraw. But before I describe my reasons behind this decision, I do want to say that this was the most terrifying and hard decision that I’ve made in a long time. I thought that by “quitting” or “dropping out” (notice how I always say withdrawing instead of dropping out? The term itself makes me cringe) that I had become a failure. And the worse part was, I was so concerned how everyone else would react. I worried about the disappointment of my family and friends, the whispers from my colleagues and cohort and the university, and the labels that would suddenly be placed upon me: failure; dropout; quitter; as well as the rumors that would start: “She’s just not cut out for it,” “She quit because it was too difficult,” “This decision will be a huge setback in her life.” Funny thing is, when I told a few people of my decision, I was met with nothing but support. Quite often, actually, I was labeled as having courage to recognize my own needs and take a leap of faith by withdrawing, instead of sticking it out for the next two years. Courage: me! That, honestly, shocked me. And this doesn’t reflect that I misjudged those people in my life, but instead, the high, impossible standards that I hold myself to. All of those fears I had about people’s reactions, were only present because they were beliefs I already held about myself. In my decision, I knew I was a failure. How could everyone else not see the same thing?

I was wrong.

I have a lot of reasons for leaving. A major one is that I sorta freaked as graduation crept up. I didn’t have a plan as to what I wanted to do next. The plan was always: go to college, graduate. Afterwards? I’d deal with it once it reached me. Well, it did, and I still wasn’t prepared. So I frantically applied to grad schools. I didn’t know where I wanted to work or what job I wanted, but I knew I was good at school. Why not just keep going? I loved to learn. Why not try my hand at teaching? Everyone said I would be good at it. I think getting accepted late–after getting rejected everywhere else–wasn’t be best first step, especially as I originally got rejected into this school, as well. Everything felt rushed, I was so unprepared, and I was one of only a small handful of students that hadn’t already met and connected through orientation. Because all the spots were filled, I lived on the outskirts of town instead of being close to campus, like most others. And, frankly, because I stayed pretty reserved during the beginning as I transitioned, I didn’t make the effort necessary to truly become great friends with the awesome people of my cohort. And that is something that, regardless of where I am heading now, I do truly regret. That opportunity was truly missed and the blame for it falls completely on my shoulders.

But, as the semester continued on, I realized that I hadn’t understood what I signed up for. I thought that, with my Masters, I could teach at a university (which, if I did teach, I would much rather teach at the university level than the high school level). Wrong: you really need a Doctorate for that. At best, you can be an adjunct and get shitty benefits (if any), terrible pay in regards to the workload and not as much respect from your peers. I have no interest in a Doctorate. At all. And it was quickly becoming apparent that a Masters is slowly becoming more of a stepping stone for a Doctorate than its own credible degree. Then, with the courses I was taking, pedagogy and theory were on the list, neither of which I was interested in at all. And, through my own lack of research, I realized that my new university might not have been the best place to go to study my particular field and interest, as the entire year lacked any specifics of what I wanted to learn. Looking towards the future, I also realized that I didn’t want to deal with the politics I was discovering, that surrounds the life in academia. Perhaps selfishly, perhaps naively, I didn’t want to be required to publish scholarly articles to deem myself as “credible” in the eyes of my peers and a university. All I wanted was to teach students to love literature and learn from it; be an inspiration to students like so many teachers and professors had been to me. I wanted to be a nerd and use my passion to ignite a joy of learning in others. That’s it. None of the bullshit that surrounding teaching. I just wanted to teach. But the loopholes and the politics blocking the path to that goal was, frankly, just too much for me to handle at this point in my life.

There were other factors, too. Though it sounds silly, living in a place where it snows all the time and has consistent frigid temperatures (plus a winter season that lasts longer than any I’ve ever heard of) isn’t the ideal place for me. While appearing trivial, I think it does matter. Living 12 hours away from home was a lot harder than I originally thought. Though I still do plan to move out of Kansas eventually (living abroad for an extended amount of time is still one of my dreams/plans), right now, I think being close to home will help. Not to mention my mental health deteriorated to the worst point it has been at since I was in high school–and those were some dark times, for me. I was experiencing bouts of loneliness and depression and self-loathing that I had kept at bay for a long time. Their return honestly frightened me, especially because of their strength. And, quite bluntly, I realized that I was just tired of school. I was tired of the ridiculous amounts of homework and feeling guilty for playing on the PS3 when I should have been reading Berlin. I was tired of writing papers (academic papers; my creative writing is in full swing) and stressing about grades. I had already graduated with a 3.75 GPA. Hadn’t I proven myself enough?

Also, I hated feeling like I “wasn’t a writer.” I got rejected to every MFA (Masters of Fine Arts, i.e., creative writing) program I applied to and I barely got into this MA program. But I didn’t want to be labeled as an academic over a writer, yet almost always, that was the case. And when I called myself a writer, sometimes I was met with disdain or scorn, as if I was stepping into territory I didn’t belong. Except that I do. I’m a writer first, foremost and always. I will never need a degree to prove that. Frankly, I don’t need to be published, either.

Of course, there were things that I loved, too: after getting over my fears and stresses of teaching, I absolutely loved it. I was blessed with a great class filled with amazing, bright, hilarious, awesome students. If not for them, I would have left grad school back when I made this decision, over a month ago. My kids–as I have nicknamed them–kept me here and they will be the connection I always have with this university. There are good memories I have with some of the friends I made: going to see a friend play in a band; ranting about 1010 issues; friends meeting with me at a bar so I could see the Royals game (as I lacked cable); the parties we had earlier in the semester where everyone got to know one another; connecting with the amazing family I dogsit for (and that pup…goodness).

I wasn’t miserable all of the time, not at all. But I was miserable enough, and in such large doses, that I realized that despite my fears, despite what others may think or how they may respond or label me, that the best move, right now, was to leave and change paths. Ever since I made that decision, I don’t think I’ve cried myself to sleep a single night. That definitely wasn’t the case prior. Of course, I’ve questioned if I made the right call, especially on the good days. But I have to be confident with it. I have to trust myself and my gut.

So yes, I’m leaving grad school. Knowing me, I’ll prolly end up with my Masters degree eventually. Who knows when (or if) or from where. As far as the next step goes, I’m not 100% sure. But I am certain of one thing: the goal that I have always carried with me has not changed. Whatever I do, happiness is the #1 priority. I got a degree in Creative Writing and Film not for the financial benefits (Lord, no) or because of the potential job market. I pursued my degree because I loved it. Writing and film are my passions. I pursued them. Getting a job can’t be different. Not for me. I know too many people who are miserable in their jobs and they can’t get out. And many of them, the sacrifices they make working those jobs are some that I will always respect and never repay. But I want to be happy. If that means I’m poor and work three jobs at different bookstores, then so be it. If that means I have to continue jumping between different life paths, then so be it. I’ve battled too hard and too long to end up being miserable.

This year, I’m thankful for failure. In my semester of grad school, I failed–legitimately–more times than I can recount in living memory, both in school and in my job and in adjusting to living on my own and in my writing. But I learned a lot from it, too. I learned that I can survive: I made it through a semester of grad school, despite battling demons and failing often. One professor told me, upon learning that I was leaving, to not abandon it forever. I definitely had the chops for it (which meant a lot, coming from him, as his class was my absolute hardest). I successfully taught (taught being a debatable term, here) a freshmen English class. A librarian told me, after giving a presentation to my students and I, that he had never seen a grad student connect so well with their students yet still remain an air of professionalism and control. That meant the world. And my students have always had my back, which I can also never express my gratitude for. I lived on my own for a semester: paid bills, lived paycheck to paycheck, attempted to learn how to cook. I survived.

I learned a lot about myself through this experience. In many ways, I need to improve and grow. But in plenty of other ways, too, I’m doing just fine. Thanks for the memories and the hardships, grad school. Up next? I definitely don’t know. But I am utterly stoked to find out.


5 thoughts on “Thankful for Failure: A Change in Life Paths”

  1. Reading your thoughts reminded me of this quote by Ralph Aldo Emerson..”The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” I will echo on what people have already told you but it was indeed very good that you recognized your needs and made your decision. I believe everything happens for a reason so wherever your path leads, I wish you the best on your journey moving forward, Nicole!

  2. Good for you! It’s so hard to fight the inner doubts and worries about the opinions of others-and I’m glad you found that the doubts were really just your own. As a person who works multiple jobs-I can tell you, that if you get the right ones it’s definitely worth it! I’m super happy even if not rich. Guess I’ll have to visit you in Kansas now!!!!! Yay!!!

      1. hey, Bmore is cool. And I can take you to our aquarium. lol. Seriously, for realz-come on down, I’ll pick ya up and you can stay with me and my puppy!

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