The home stretch

A few months ago, as I sat in my fourth year Archaeological Theory course, I looked around and wondered where the heck everybody was. The class was tough, no doubt, but the roster was full of exceptional people. What was going on? I spoke to one of the other people in attendance that day and she enlightened me: it was a class full of mostly fourth years who were in the home stretch and they were experiencing school fatigue.

I did not get it.

I loved being in school. A few months earlier I had begun to consider the idea of continuing on after my undergrad and doing my masters. I was really torn though as I also wanted to apply for an exceptional job opportunity.

I did apply for that job and I start full-time in September. I began to feel enough school fatigue to want to postpone any thoughts of a masters program for a few more years. I finished my full-time courses and quickly the Spring session began.

It wasn’t too bad at all. Two times a week on campus, the class was interesting and each night we watched a movie so the lectures were broken up. I worked on an independent study about multiculturalism and education. The fatigue abated.

And then, Summer school started. I had some meetings and training for my new job and I was commuting to school four nights a week. The classes are seminar style and the readings are significant.

I totally get it now.

I am effectively in my last stretch of my degree. I am fatigued. I am ready to be done. I know that once the summer session is over and I have some time to rest, I will be happy that this is not my final Mac experience. I have three courses to complete over the 2016-2017 school year. One next winter will be an independent study on women in print and other media from 1960 to 1980. That will be the way I want to end things.

For now, though, I want to be done. 26 months of full-time university is weighing me down right now. I want to wake up without anything to do other than lie down in the hammock or go for a bike ride.

Better yet, I want to learn to do yoga on my paddleboard.

Or not.

 

Feedback as a gift

I was at a great workshop on Tuesday and one of the presenters talked about how you can take feedback as a negative or as a gift.

It really got my brain reflecting on my experiences at McMaster, not only because feedback is a big part of being a university student.

Being a university student has truly been a gift; a multilayered, surprising, challenging, amazing gift.

So there’s feedback. When I first began, I took feedback hard. In the lower year classes, feedback is often a mark only. There are hundreds of students in each class and if there are no teaching assistants doing the marking (and even if there are), there simply is not enough time to give in-depth, meaningful feedback to all students. Even in some of the upper year classes or independent studies I have done, I have not received significant feedback. Therefore, oftentimes, feedback is a mark and I found it hard to get a mark and not know what I did right or wrong to deserve that mark. I was clamoring for more.

Then life and readings and assignments take over, and you move on.

When I hit this year, though, some events occurred that opened my mind. I had done an independent study and received an excellent mark. I felt good about the mark because I had worked really hard and the prof is someone whose work I really respect. I knew he did not hand out marks.

Or so I thought. During the feedback session, the prof spoke for more than 30 minutes about all the things he disagreed with, that he didn’t like or that I had wrong. As we headed towards 45 minutes of this, I stood up and said I had to go. Not because I had anywhere to go, but I had to stop hearing criticism. It was months before I realized what had actually happened: despite being “wrong”, I had presented a really strong argument for my perspective. Being wrong is not always wrong apparently.

The second example of my shift in feedback came when I handed in a proposal for the final project in a course and the prof directed me to a pivotal article. That reading allowed me to crystallize my thoughts and my direction. I ended up with my highest mark in university on the paper because I was able to improve when I opened myself up to the feedback (and the feedback was truly constructive).

And then, there’s the gift part.

I went back to university to complete my degree. To have the piece of paper that I somehow thought I was not complete without. The gift of the last 2 years is that the paper is nothing compared to the moments and the learning and the relationships and the vision I have of myself. Everyday has been life-changing, even when I was too tired or too stressed to see that.

As I have gone out into the world these past few weeks, in meetings and workshops for the new job I am starting in the fall, I can see the shift that has occurred. It is like everyday of university has been a type of feedback. It has helped me realign my thinking and my being.

It’s not only about the lessons learned. The people I have been surrounded by have helped me by allowing me to bounce ideas off of them and have them share their worldviews. They have made it impossible for me to see anything in the world in black and white ever again.

I am so lucky to have had this gift, these moments, these experiences. The paper I will get in a year’s time is not my trophy. It is the accumulation of those moments into the shifted way of being that is what matters, what remains.

Wait – what?

I had a moment last night – I realized that THIS is it.

With my leave of absence coming to an end in a few months, I am done being on campus as a full-time student with the throngs of others in three weeks.

Wait – what?

I know why the time has crept up on me. I am busy. Busier than I have ever been, at least mentally. I have had times in my life when I’ve rushed from here to there and back again for weeks on end. Never, not once, in my life has my brain been so actively engaged in thinking about – everything.

I often wake up thinking. To do lists. Ideas for papers. Authors I want to read. Documentaries I want to watch. Sleep I want to have.

At the same time as I am considering ‘the end’ of this phase, I’m feeling the connections that come when you have taken enough courses from profs who think differently and yet have similar themes – you know, the threads from theory A attach to practice B and those attach to this way of being over here.

On the GO this morning I was reading about archaeology and nuclear waste disposal sites and the ‘failure of architecture’. I’m not going to lie – I would not have understood much of it a few years ago. What was cool was that I understood not only what was in the paper, but what its implications are for the project discussed and beyond. It was one of those, “wow I hadn’t thought of that, but now that I know, well, then that changes how I think about this and that and that too”.

And that, in a nut shell, is the take away from the past two years.

This experience has changed the way I think about everything. It deepens my beliefs in some things and utterly changes my beliefs in other ways of being.

It has changed me. Fundamentally. To the core. On occasion I think, oh I wish I’d done this sooner. It only lasts a second.

It would not have been the same. I would not have had the same experience. I may have had one that was as good. But I would not have had THIS experience. And I would not change THIS experience for anything.

I am not done. I have 7 courses left to do. The plan is to do 4 this summer (eek!) and then complete the last three at night and still graduate in 2017.

At grad, I have the sense that it’ll be like those Academy Award moments when somebody’s going to have to play the music to get me off the stage. I know I will not be speaking but I am going to soak it in. Every single second.

So, that’s my plan for these last three weeks of life as a full-time undergrad. Soak in every second. Because that moment of being given your degree is not THE moment. All of the moments which fulfilled the requirements and the times in between, they are what matter.

Right now, I’m sitting in my favourite library in my favourite seat and the sun is shining.

Life. Is. Incredibly. Good.

 

Success

A McMaster blogger asked the question, What is success?  It is an important question, but it’s also a very individual answer.

I responded to the article by saying, I strongly believe that you need to enjoy what you are doing in life and be happy with the outcomes. The idea of outcomes often means you are driven by a salary (which makes you dependent on others and the value they place on your role) or driven by making a difference in the lives of others (which some say also makes you dependent on others). I see outcomes differently. If I can look back over my day or week and say, I did something meaningful, then I feel successful. If I made connections with people who I care about, that is even more successful. It is especially important that my success does not impede the happiness or ‘success’ of others. In a world of Donald Trumps, it is important to not get to where you are going by walking over (or barreling through) others.

I think given more time, I would expand greatly on what success means to me. I have always believed that one of my greatest ‘successes’ is that I have a good relationship with my children, that as a family we were able to launch them ‘successfully’ into the world (they are happy, have meaningful work and people in their lives who love them and who they love), and I have a strong, loving relationship with my husband, who happens to be my best friend.

University has changed me in big and small ways. One of the most fundamental ways is the belief I have in myself. I made a decision in December to try to expedite my university experience in order to place myself available to work full time next fall. When I first came to university, I wondered if I’d make it through the first semester. I started with 36 credits of the 120 needed for an Honours Anthropology degree. After only 26 months, I potentially will have just 9 credits left to complete at the end of August. That is a crazy accomplishment. A success.

I want different things for myself than I did back in 2014 when I started this journey. Not that I do not want those aspects of my life that I feel made me successful to date – but I want more. More for myself, more for others. I want to go back to the workforce in a role that supports others in their day-to-day lives and their whole life journey. That is the part of this university adventure that has been less present for me and it is something I miss. I have been supported and helped by many people over the past few years and that has been a gift.

Whatever the next step is, I know that it will be one that I will mold differently and which will ultimately redefine what my professional life’s success plan looks like.

I am excited to begin to find that future.

In the meantime, back to homework. A little bit of Zombies, a little bit of Foucault and a whole lot of brain expansion.

 

 

Things I wish I’d known before starting university

I recently read a couple posts about things people wished they had/should have known before starting university. These posts are written by people who fit into the more ‘classic’ student profile – attend university out of high school, completed their degrees in their twenties…the same profile of the vast majority of university aged students.

Well, there’s a few different things I wish I’d know before starting/restarting university; there’s also a few from the above-mentioned lists that I’d put on mine.

Like, you will make new friends. I’m not sure how people define ‘friends’, but I have made relationships with people on campus that have been unexpected and truly wonderful. There’s Natasha, my monthly lunch date who recently introduced me as her university mom. Natasha and I talk about life and we encourage each other. That goes for Christine, Spencer, and Jennifer and other young people I look forward to seeing and hearing about their life adventures. It all sounds pretty “friend” like to me.

Another item from those other lists: get out of your shell and try new things. Let’s face it, getting out of my shell has never been a problem for me. Trying new things, that’s a different story. I have tried a lot of new things – or tried things in a new way. I’m doing yoga twice a week IN PUBLIC as opposed to in my basement. I enter writing contests, attend talks and presentations, and tweet about various activities on campus (which has earned me some free stuff from time to time). The best thing I’ve done is try meditation. It has changed my life in ways that I could not have imagined, not the least of which is lower my anxiety and increase my focus.

The things not on those lists that I wish I had known: being older has a real upside and a real downside. The upsides include having years of experience at being organized. I have never been late with an assignment, or even come close. I often disagree with professors and rather than talk about how much I disagree with them, I talk to them. I know the importance of making connections with professors and TAs and I do utilize office hours (advice from my children, both university grads). The downside is that hours of sitting and typing on a laptop is harder on a body that is…older than 30. In order to memorize things, I have to push other things out of the way in my brain and that’s not as easy as when I was younger. I am harder on myself than I need to be and I have high expectations because I know that I am pausing my life for several years to get my degree. Many of these things are things that younger people also experience (while maybe not the physical stuff) so it may not be totally an age-related phenomenon.

I wish I had known how tired I’d be. I wish I’d known how frustrating it is to never find a quiet place to work on campus. I wish I’d known how lonely it is – even with new found friends – how you can be surrounded by thousands of people and still be alone (not unheard of in any age group, I know).

I have many people I know and spend time with in class but the camaraderie that I experienced while working is hard to replicate in a university environment. I often joke that I miss being with grownups. The ‘older’ type.

The thing I did know coming in is this experience would change my life. Not in the “get a great job at the end” kind of way. I’m not sure if I knew how, but I knew it would. And it has.

I am 1000 times more confident. I know that I can do really, really hard tasks. I figured out how to do stats and why the type of commemoration in a cemetery changed drastically in a decade (well, I found out a couple likely reasons – welcome to archaeology) and wrote a 37 page report on it (loved it!). This are not easy things to do. I did that.

I have found out that I truly am a product of the 60s – that what I learned in school about the world was incredibly biased toward a way of thinking that had colonialism written all over it. I also found it I’m not an old dog – I’ve learned a lot of new ways of looking at the world that make a whole lot more sense.

I can go to bed with things (lots and lots of things) on my to-do list and still manage to get a good night’s sleep. That’s definitely teaching an old dog new tricks.

I knew a couple other things a long time ago, but this experienced has deepened that understanding:

I definitely proposed to and married the right man. He has taken such amazing care of me and most especially these past few years.

I have the most supportive and loving (adult) children. They have encouraged me and pushed me and challenged me to believe in myself when I wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into.

I have a truly incredible life.

I am living my dream. Ticking a box on a different list – my bucket list.

Cloak of invisibility

During a class last fall, I wrote a paper about sexual harassment on campus. One of the points I made in that paper is that I appear to wear a cloak of invisibility when it comes to being a target of the type of attention that qualifies as sexual harassment. As well, I am apparently so ‘unseeable’ by some young people who I had overheard many highly inappropriate conversations that qualified as blatantly sexist and misogynistic, though I was, fortunately, never the target of harassment of this nature.

I am a ‘mature’ student – as in much older than your typical university undergrad. I was admitted to the second year of a four-year degree program so I did not come to McMaster as a true ‘first year’ student. I was not interested in ‘frosh’ type programs but it would have been very helpful to be given an orientation to the university nonetheless. In this sense, I was wearing another cloak of invisibility. I flew under the radar of being shown the ropes.

Probably the most uncomfortable way that I was confronted by my invisibility was when I first spoke in each new class. I usually sat at the back of classrooms and when the first opportunity for me to speak in a class arose, either asking or answering a question, a large majority of my ‘peers’ turned around to look at me. I realize that I am, as my (adult) children would tell me, totally over thinking this, but to me it felt like people turned around to see where the voice that sounded a lot like someone their mother’s age was coming from…..and there were a few surprised faces.

Things are a bit different now. People are used to me being in their classes, at least they seem to be. When I’m in the archaeology lab for open labs, there are many conversations that people have as they plow through the bones or stone tools that I am sure they wouldn’t have around their mothers, but they do have around me.

On occasion, when someone is going on and on and on about being old (at 20), I will try to make a quip about how I can relate which always gets a laugh.

The other day someone asked me what I want to do with my degree. That was the very first time a fellow student had asked me that. I took a moment and answered honestly, “I don’t know”. She laughed and said, “Wow, you really fit in here!”

I have been percolating an idea – not something I want to do after I graduate, but something I want to do while at Mac. I want to carve out a space for older students – a place to study, a place to hang out, a place to be. On campus there is a wonderful spot that I like to go to, a lounge that is associated with the Wellness Centre. An eclectic group of people go there and it is a place where everyone is welcome. Certainly, as an older student, I do not feel out-of-place. Yet, I think there is value in a common space for older students.

I want other people who are wearing that cloak of invisibility, who want to have a cup of tea or coffee with someone who is squished between schoolwork, aging parents, children, mortgages, car payments – who have lived a bit more, a bit longer – to have a place to go and engage with people who are speaking about things that are familiar to them.

Given that more and more people with longer lives lived will be coming to – or back to – university, I think it is important to address those people – us, me – and help us find our way to our own unique finish line.

 

Life is what happens…

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans…..John Lennon

Or, in my case, life is what happens when you’re doing homework, or commuting, or sitting in class.

I had not realized that I hadn’t posted here since April. It’s simple really – my other blog has been receiving all my attention. Originally intended to be a photo blog, (mom)ents became a soapbox for all my ranting against the government. Not sure it made a difference, except in allowing me to vent.

I reread all the previous posts in this blog and I realize how far I’ve come and how much I have learned. Not just about anthropology – and this semester about archaeology specifically. I have learned about myself. And isn’t that one of the hoped outcomes of university?

There is no one thing that I can point to that has caused this change – spending most of my time alone? Realizing that under all the life experiences and memories and acquired knowledge there still is room for more? The shifted frame within which I see myself?

This semester I am doing an Independent Study course. I had an idea, found a professor to supervise, proposed the idea (which went through changes) and launched into the project this fall. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involves a cemetery (no, I am not digging up dead bodies).

The professor supervising me knows his stuff and has high expectations that you know your stuff as well. That’s part of why I wanted to work with him – being pushed is something I have sought out regularly on this adventure (hence, taking Lithic Analysis which is pretty much the bane of my existence these days – but I digress). During meetings, the prof often asks a question along the lines of “Justify your thinking”. I cannot remember who said what, what study that thinking came from….I can write a million essays, but pop quizzes (and bell ringers) send me into a state of panic. Literally.

And yet, throughout the course of this semester, with each subsequent meeting, I am better and better prepared. I have a course of action and his questions now lead me to the next step more easily. Friday’s meeting happily led me to see the path to the final destination on the project. (In summary, a little of a lot is okay, a lot of a little is better.)

One thing that I’ve had to do throughout the project is answer questions, my own and his; figure out how to take data that is meaningful; and I’ve had to fix my mistakes, go back and get data I forgot to get or overlooked.

It’s been my ‘baby’.

And there it is. I needed to find a new way to see myself. As the mother of something else.

I have no regrets about how I raised my children. But I would do it all again.

By going back to university, I have learned that there are other dreams and lives to live that are as amazing as the one I lived raising my children.

My best friend in the world was by my side then and he continues to walk that path with me now.

Our first date was 34 years ago this week.

How lucky am I?

Finished, yet still at the beginning

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June 23, 2014 – First day of university in over 30 years.

April 22, 2015 – last day of the first year back.

These two days, ten months apart, were equally filled with happiness, excitement and a bit of concern.

I cannot properly attest to the changes that have happened to me over the past year. It has been a journey like no other I have ever undertaken. I have had an incredible amount of support along the way, but in reality, to a large extent, it is a journey you take alone.

I have had to figure out what the heck happens at university. I mean, where do I study, where do I find things, what is the protocol. I have had to figure out what university at 52 looks like, how to feel about the obvious quizzical looks I encountered every single day. Where is academic advising? Where is the best food? Where is….everything.

It sounds a lot like anybody going to university I know. Everybody on a university campus is with thousands of other people and alone at the same time.

I think sometimes people, including me, thought that those would be the easier parts as an older student. There were times, though, that not knowing the basics was the hardest part. It was late in the year that I figured out where to study on campus, in the way I like to study. Late in the year when I figured out I needed to study on campus because I was so easily distracted at home, by food and laundry and….the million other things that encourage and facilitate procrastination.

There is a lot of freedom in being an older student. I have a cloak of invisibility in a lot of ways – there are no social expectations really. I did not expect to make ‘friends’ and therefore I have been able to create relationships that are comfortable and easy, and relatively label-less. I have people I see in every class that I sit close to and discuss life before and after class with, but who I do not spend time with outside of university. This is a very comfortable way to spend my university days. I like to be alone, fortunately.

That being said, I do miss my friends. I miss the camaraderie that is inherent to working in a classroom.  I worked on school teams for 11 years; I miss the banter and the fun. I miss young people, the students, who actually do say the darndest things. I do not miss the politics nor the times I was hurt or frustrated.

This was the best choice for me. I do not yet miss university, but it’s only been two days. I have spent some of that time preparing a proposal for an independent project for next year, so I haven’t walked away completely. I will begin summer school in less than two months. Not much time to miss being away from it.

Reflecting has been a major part of one of my courses all year. I haven’t always liked what I discovered about myself through the reflections, and I definitely did not agree with everything the professor put forward and I stood up for my opinions very firmly.

That has been one of my greatest areas of growth, perhaps: university has caused a significant shift in my self-identity; and, secondly, having to defend my beliefs has made me question them in order to justify them. The result has been a shift in many of those same beliefs or understandings.

It has been the best journey. I look forward to the years ahead, perhaps even more knowing how amazing they can be.

And I feel so incredibly fortunate. I know that my life is one of joy and wonder; one not to be taken for granted. I deeply appreciate this gift of education.

June 22, 2015 – first day of summer school, and the start of next year’s adventure.  Another beginning.

Wait. What?

I guess my total absence from posting here is an indication of how things have been.

Crazy. Busy. Crazy busy.

The adventure has been more than I could have hoped for, better than I could have dreamed, harder than I could have planned for and has changed my life in ways I could never, ever have imagined.

I have met some truly amazing people. I see friendships on the horizon that will enrich and enhance my life, and hopefully I can bring something to the lives of others.

As I said often in the beginning, that sound you hear is my brain exploding. Interestingly, it just expands now; the volume of knowledge does not overwhelm it. So perhaps it’s more like the soft sound of a balloon filling, not exploding.

I have had some unexpected, and some expected, setbacks. Not in my ability to do the work – it somehow always gets done – but in my ability to manage my expectations. Losing a dear friend a few weeks back was challenging but when I finally took a day to honour that loss, I have been able to find my way again. And to truly honour her, I am working to make it more rewarding and less stressful an adventure.

The two biggest gifts that have come along have been meditation and people. There are people in my life – both recent additions and long time friends – who enrich my experience and my life in countless ways. My children and hubby are my bedrock, but I am so lucky to have a growing group of people who make me laugh and smile and think and appreciate my amazing life.

Meditation has taught me how to focus on my studies, but more than that, it is continuing to teach me to focus on my life. The moments and the people and the gift of learning.

It has been well worth the wait.

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Unexpected ups and downs

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I hit “school” a little over a week ago full of energy, a bit of anxiety and a healthy level of confidence.

A week later, I’m exhausted, the anxiety ebbs and flows and my confidence, depleted by an unexpected twist, is regaining strength.

The exhaustion is not in the least unexpected – this return to full-time studies is an exhausting endeavor. It’s actually physically more exhausting than mentally at this point, but I’m confident that will change soon. The work will get harder but the routine and a rhythm will set in.

My anxiety was predominately around two courses – Archaeology and Biological Anthropology. These are not intuitive type courses for me, but are required for my degree. They are courses heavily weighted on exams and labs. I have not been in a lab, well, ever. In high school I went to a self teaching high school and we only had to read about biological lab activities, we did not have to actually engage in them. I am comfortable in writing environments, not test environments. Working outside my comfort zone for the majority of marks is somewhat intimidating. That being said, talking through everything in the first few classes has made me realize how exciting all of these opportunities actually are. Taking an exam worth 35% of my mark in just 50 minutes (Biological Anthropology midterm, which is also, interestingly, on my birthday!) is not so exciting, and has not allowed all the anxiety to go away, but it’s all part of the adventure. One I would not trade.

My confidence took a hit in a completely unexpected way. Unexpected by me, but perhaps not by everyone else.

There is no where quiet on campus. I came from working in kindergarten so I know noise. There just is a lot of reading to get done and there seems to be nowhere to go and do that. Solution? Noise cancelling headphones – check.

It goes without saying that I’m older than my academic “peers”. The other second year students – most other students EVERYWHERE on campus – are younger than me. Not by a bit, but by and large, they are younger than my own children. I KNEW this. I spent the summer on campus, but it was not FULL, overrun, teeming with youth like it is now that the school year has begun.

So, there are a lot of people. I am a very social person, but I was feeling weirdly alone. I was acutely aware of my “otherness” (which, in anthropology, is a significant concept, except usually we have to be mindful of not making our subjects feel that we are researching them for their “otherness” – but I digress….). Generally, people I spoke to were friendly, but I didn’t want things to be awkward, so I didn’t often speak to people.

I walked around to places that were less crowded and discovered beautiful hangouts on campus including a greenhouse. The walks were about clearing my head, getting some fresh air and trying to figure out how to remedy this situation. I found a beautiful spot to eat my lunch and listen to podcasts on my Ipod.

Then, a funny thing happened. I was talking to a professor about a research idea I am considering (for down the line) and as an aside, he pointed out the perspective and the value I bring to a classroom and a university.

And in the last 24 hours, since that time, I’ve begun to come around. I’ve begun to remember why I am doing this. And talking to people. A girl commented on my t-shirt (I was wearing my Harold and the Purple Crayon t-shirt) and I stopped and spoke to her. It was a moment, but it felt more natural than avoiding interactions. In class, there are people I have spoken to and when it comes to “turn to your neighbour and discuss”, there’s always someone there.

This week, I had a get together with my neighbours and dinner with a friend. I dropped in to see some friends at their school. It’s not the same as in the past, but it’s a different kind of good.

So, week one down.