Essay by Deneen Gilmour
Two years ago I had one son, one job and one husband.
Today I have four sons, three part-time jobs, one husband and a full-time course load. I chucked a corporate job to study fora master's degree at North Dakota State University.
The changes defy common sense, the laws of nature and general sanity.
My three new jobs collectively pay $31,000 less annually than my previous position.
My three new sons, adopted within a two-year span, more than doubled the size of our family, and more than quadrupled our grocery bill. Our new sons are Lost Boys of Sudan, survivors of their country's 20-year civil war, who somehow managed to stay alive after their parents, siblings and 2 million others were slaughtered. They grew to high-school age in a Kenyan refugee camp. In some ways the "boys," as they call themselves, are young adults, certainly in the ways of survival. In other ways, they're childlike - nervous newcomers in a strange land.
Friends asked if I was suffering a mid-life crisis. Not at all. It's more of a mid-life correction. College is a stepping stone to make my world right again, initiating a second career after nearly two decades in the corporate world. In many ways, NDSU is my escape, a bridge from the profit-driven world to the knowledge-driven world. And, truth be told, it's a respite from the beehive-like whirl of four boys at home.
My dream has always been to transform my journalism career into a teaching career. A few years ago, I began to fantasize about setting myself free and making the leap back to a university. This may sound hopelessly idealistic, but I have found that a life of the mind still exists at the university. Idealism exists. In fact, idealism thrives in some classrooms, departments and offices. A sense of the possible still exists. Students and professors hunger to know more, to dig deeper, to find the answers to the "hows" and "whys" of the world. At the university, many endeavor to seek answers rather than proclaim they already know the answers. People work in tandem for the greater good.
Exercising the intellect
Studying and working in such an environment is rebirth - a fresh way of seeking solutions and viewing the world.
I think of Judy Pearson's social action research class, known by communication graduate students as the highest hurdle on the way to a doctorate. She tosses strangers into a working group for a semester and assigns them a research project that would make NASA engineers quiver. She grouped me with three strangers. Our assignment was to research why college students consume alcohol and propose solutions. We knew hundreds before us had researched the problem and proposed solutions. We also knew that many students continue to consume alcohol. We cowered, with a question that seemed too huge for rookie researchers.
"How can we do this?" we and others asked her.
"Well, let's see," is her reply. "How can you do it?"
The exchange repeats until students discover their own power to not only glean knowledge from others' academic research, but, indeed, to create new knowledge as a result of their own research.
I think of Mark Meister whose rhetorical criticism class I took because it fit my family's schedule. Walking into the first class session, I had no clue what rhetorical criticism was other than an impressive-sounding phrase. After reading four assigned textbooks, the concept of rhetorical criticism remained elusive. Butterflies flitted from my waist to my throat when he announced we'd each write a 20-page rhetorical criticism by semester's end. Others in the class felt equally lost. Sensing that, Meister messed up his own schedule by conducting two daylong one-on-one, out-of-class writing conferences. Ultimately, he guided some 15 individuals through a confusing process. With his help, my cluelessness became an I-can-accomplish-this attitude.
I think of Paul Nelson, chair of the communication department. He hired me to teach media writing classes. I had written thousands of news stories, but until recently had never taught a college class. I expected Nelson to hand me a syllabus, textbook, packet of lesson plans and lecture notes. I expected him to monitor my classes for the first weeks or months. None of it happened. When I asked why, he said, "You're a professional. Go teach them what they need to know." So I did. So I do.
Boys and books: The juggling act
From my perspective, earning a master's degree is easier than working for a living. Basically, you buy textbooks, read them, listen to 15 weeks of lectures and write a long research paper at the end of the semester.
School is the easy part. It's the struggle to balance the needs of four boys with the demands of learning and teaching that causes panic attacks. But I have grown a little wiser. For a while, I cooked three separate suppers: A homemade meat-and-potatoes meal, pizza for whichever boy on any given night would turn up his nose at North Dakota farm food, and a Sudanese-type dish such as lueeka (okra) soup.
Add to that 15 to 20 loads of laundry per week, which each boy wants handled to his personal preference. Our all-American son wants his team-logo sweatshirts air dried. Our middle Sudanese son wants his lace-trimmed African shirts hand-stretched (to prevent the cotton lace from shrinking) and then ironed. He also likes his work shirts bleached white, and has a tendency to present shirts for laundering 50 minutes before his shift begins.
Finally, my husband and I realized that each boy was an honor roll student. If they could master book learning, they could master the microwave oven, washer and dryer. Now I cook one meal. Boys who don't like the meal make their own. Each boy washes his own clothes. So far nobody has gone naked or hungry.
Evening is homework time at our house. After supper, my nose is usually in a book - although not one of my own. The Sudanese boys still in high school needed a great deal of help the past two years, such as how to interpret Victorian poetry, decipher new terminology in their psychology textbooks, and wade through dreaded algebra "word problems."
A 'hot' Saturday night
The greatest challenge has been getting the kids out of the house so I can study. With one headed to junior high, two finishing high school and one college freshman - each with a gift for gab, a gaggle of friends, music machines and cell phone ring-a-ding devices - it is impossible to study with them in the house. However, I have learned that I can read several chapters while accompanying our son to a piano lesson. Another dozen pages can be turned in the immigration office as our Sudanese boys stand in line for paperwork, or I can read while idling in the parking lot to retrieve carpool kids after church choir practice.
Thanks to weekend hockey games, Sunmart, Hornbacher's and Villa Maria Nursing Home, I've made it to within three classes of earning a master's degree. During the school year, Saturday nights find my husband and son out of town for hockey games. Busy during the week with school, the Sudanese boys spend Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays working at their part-time jobs as nursing assistants, grocery baggers and cashiers.
Saturday evening has become my quiet time to scour research literature and draft my own research reports for class assignments. I savor those moments alone with books, words and thoughts.
The search for answers
Truly, NDSU is my tropical island. It's a place where I escape stained carpets, hungry kids, fights over the remote control, half-done sixth-grade science projects and dirty dishes. In a larger sense, it's much more. In my 40th year I've discovered why people refer to universities as "ivory towers." At a university, students and professors are fully aware of the fray all around them - indeed they study those frays - but most don't have to get muddy and bloody in the fray unless they choose. Covering car accidents, deadly fires and floods, I've spent two decades with a sometimes painfully close view of the fray. At the university, my observation post feels much safer. People in business sometimes remark that academics just don't get it. I've discovered that they do get it, albeit differently, possibly more deeply than many imagine.
For example, as a journalist, I witnessed and wrote about a constant barrage of human tragedy, natural disasters or government skullduggery. I rushed from day to day, deadline to deadline, never slowing enough to dissect the cause and effect of the tragedies. As a graduate student researcher, it's my role to look closer. Ideally, a researcher assesses the problems of the human condition, roots out the causes and proposes solutions. The work is slow, and sometimes it appears progress is so incremental that it's nonexistent.
However, consider the world of research from a third, holistic view of humankind. The best solutions don't occur in haste. Good outcomes rarely follow when someone impatiently fires a weapon, or when a CEO quickly decides to please shareholders by slicing jobs.
Rather, the best solutions often flow from careful, patient study. How long did the Wright brothers try and try again before they created a plane that would fly? How long did Jonas Salk toil obscurely in a lab until he found a vaccine that ended the polio scourge? At this moment, university researchers around the world poke away at small questions, each hoping his or her answers will eventually solve at least some small human problem.
That's what graduate students and professors do every day at NDSU. Eventually, my respite will pass in what my former colleagues call the ivory tower. At two years for a master's degree and three for a doctorate, only four years of my five-year learning vacation remain. Then I choose. I could return to the corporate world, or I could work on the pile of laundry that promises a job for posterity. Ideally, I'd like to stay in academia and seek answers.