Twenty Years of University

OK, so maybe the title is a little misleading — there was a gap of a few years in there, but it has been twenty years since I first set foot on campus.  Certainly I can say I have spent the bulk of the last two decades at the University in one form or another.

Much like the changing of the seasons, the first week of classes is very much a milestone I use for marking my year.  This particular class is the 12th I’ve seen come into the hallowed halls of learning.  Every year I see the first-year students with that fresh-faced optimism arrive, convinced they know what they want to do and how they will get it.  I recognize that look; I know that feeling.

I recognize it because at one point that was me.  I came into the University convinced I was going to be a high school teacher.  I was going to get my degree and return to my hometown and my old high school.  In retrospect it was a rather “Welcome Back, Kotter”-esque plan, but it worked for me at the time.  I had no doubts I would marry, have a couple of kids and live a pretty good existence.

It’s like Jackson Browne sings in “Running on Empty”:

In ’69 I was twenty-one and I called the road my own.

I don’t know when that road turned onto the road I’m on.

Even with the benefit of hindsight I’m not sure how I ended up here.  Certainly there was the fact I was ill-prepared for the demands of being a university student.  Having pretty much coasted through high school I felt I would be able to do the same in post-secondary.  I was like the sports team that is losing to a weaker opponent — they are sure when it comes to crunch-time they’ll be be able to turn up their game and their natural talent will come through.  They, like me, are always the most shocked when they look around one day and discover they are out of the playoffs.

That first year was an eye-opening experience.  I made some new friends, and I lost of lot of old ones.  Some disappeared from my life because I moved away and they stayed behind or moved to other places.  Some disappeared because they came with me — just ask Keith, my roommate that first year.  Best friends throughout high school, by the time we reached the end of our first year of university we weren’t even on speaking terms.  I’ll take the blame for that, as it most certainly was my fault.

I returned for a second year, with renewed optimism.  My teaching plans were on hold as my poor marks had denied me access to the Faculty of Education.  I was set to complete a degree in Chemistry and then do my Education degree.  No problem, just a couple of extra years, right?

Well, I was swapping some classes around (via the telephone — the way we did it “back in the day”) and I dropped Chem 350 in order to get into the same Physics lecture as this girl named Lisa I had just met.  I got the Physics lecture, but the Chemisty class was over-booked and I couldn’t get back in.  Just like that I switched my major from Chemistry to Physics and a series of events was set into place that would forever change my life.  (By the way, nothing ever came of Lisa — I never saw her again after that year.)

A Physics degree meant calculus, specifically Math 253.  I failed that course the first semester.  You would think I would have learned from that experience and come back the second semester with a renewed sense of dedication.  It didn’t happen.  I went to the first few lectures and found them boring — after all, hadn’t I just done all this same work a few months before?  I quickly stopped going to lectures, confident I could learn the material from the textbook.  Sadly, I was wrong and — much like that over-confident sports team — I found myself without a prerequisite course for almost everything I needed for my third year.

I was loving university life.  You know that scene in “Back to School” where Rodney Dangerfield speaks about how “These classes could be a real inconvenience.”?  That sums up my university life perfectly.  I certainly wasn’t going to let a little thing like three failed attempts to establish a major deter me from another year of friends and fun.

I sat down with the university calendar and started at the beginning until I found a major that didn’t require Math 253.  Archaeology!  Yep, I was an Arky.

The problem was that archaeology is nothing like Indiana Jones makes it look like.  It was much more boring than I expected.  I also didn’t look good in a fedora and couldn’t crack a whip.  Either way, I was soon going weeks without attending classes — that final semester I was a student on paper only. 

So, in the Spring of ’93 I found myself faced with the prospect of getting a job in order to survive.  Student loans were maxed out and the bank was going to demand payment.  I won’t bore you with details of those years, suffice to say that in ’99 I returned to the University.

Biggest difference?  Instead of paying them, they were now paying me.  I joined the I.T. department as a desktop support tech.  More than eleven years later, and I’m still there.  Unlike my time as a student, I have actually made progress this time.  I have climbed the corporate ladder and hope to continue to do so.  I’ve built a pretty good little career.

People ask me why I still do it.  Why stay at a university instead of joining a consulting firm?  Why not jump at the chance to move into oil and gas and cash in?  After all, this is Calgary — oil is king!

I stay put because I believe in what we do.  Instead of making some anonymous billionairre another metric whack of cash, I’m helping — in some small way — set a course for an entire generation.  I see them every day (mainly because they are in front of me in the lineup at Tim Horton’s) trying to make something of their lives.  They have plans, just like I did.  They have dreams, just like I did. 

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels

I don’t know how to tell you just how crazy this life feels.

I look around for the friends I used to turn to pull me through

Looking into their eyes I see them running too.

I don’t know what has happened to that first class of students that came in when I was a raw rookie with just three months of experience.  Some are likely doctors, or lawyers.  No doubt there is a load of engineers.  I suspect some ended up as ditch diggers.  Others maybe never pursued a career at all, instead focusing on raising a family.  Some reached their dreams, others didn’t.  No matter what, I’m glad I was allowed to be an anonymous part of making it happen.

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