Thirty Years Later

In my last blog post, I talked about how moving to begin my master’s degree was the most difficult decision of my life. It is also one of the most important. For me, it’s kind of a re-do of college, not just a continuation. I am making up for lost time.

It’s a significant year, an anniversary. I started my bachelor’s degree thirty years ago. This year I started my master’s degree at Appalachian State University (pic of the music building, below.)

Broyhill Music Center at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC

When I look back on going to college the first time around, it brings up a lot of painful memories. Indulge me in a story as we travel back in time.

When I was sixteen, during the fall semester of my senior year of high school, I began applying to colleges: Wheaton College in Illinois, my top choice: Houghton College in New York, and the University of Rhode Island, my hometown choice – one that my parents required.

Wheaton College was everything I was looking for: it was a Christian school; they offered every aspect of music I wanted to study and experience: saxophone, piano, composition, jazz; it was in a small town but only 45 minutes from Chicago and accessible by train so I didn’t need a car. I was so convinced I wanted to attend Wheaton College, I wanted to go through the early action process. To be super sure of this, I wanted to attend a “prospective students” weekend that November.

My parents refused to come see the school with me.

They also told me if I went to the prospective student weekend, they would not take me in January or February for a (required) in-person audition. I had a choice: apply to the school for early action, sight unseen, or see the school later and apply for regular decision, without the benefits of early action.

I decided to go through with the early action application and visit the school during prospective student weekend. That brought up a second problem. Since my parents refused to go out for the normal audition days, they made me audition early. It was November. Music school auditions are normally in January and February. None of my musical friends had yet taken a college audition and could share their experiences.

I was concerned about bringing my saxophone onto a plane in its flimsy original suitcase-style case, but my parents refused to help me get a flight case for it. They made me borrow a saxophone at the school for my audition. My parents didn’t call the school to help me with this – I had to arrange it myself when I got there. I was a random sixteen-year-old with no adults with me, borrowing an expensive instrument from the school with no collateral. Looking back on this, I don’t know how this was allowed. I didn’t even get to audition with the saxophone professor since he was out of town at a festival – something that would not have happened on a regularly scheduled audition day.

I was entering uncharted territory – my first college visit, my first college auditions (saxophone and piano), and flying in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport – alone, at age 16.

Despite the challenges, Wheaton’s beautiful campus only cemented my desire to be there. I was in love with the school, but I had no one to share it with.

Visiting Houghton College was a far different experience. My parents took me this time, mostly because we could drive out and back without staying in a hotel. While I really, really liked Mark Hijleh, who would have been my composition professor, the school did not offer either saxophone studies or a jazz ensemble, which were both very important to me. The school’s location also did not impress my teenage self. There were more cows than people; when the very small school was in session, the population of the town quadrupled. While Houghton is within two hours of Rochester and the Eastman School of Music, there was no public transportation, and I wouldn’t have had a car.

That left my last option: The University of Rhode Island.

The Fine Arts building was the ugliest building on campus, a “modern” cement monstrosity built in the 1960s. It needed fixing from day one. It’s only been in the last three years that the long-overdue renovations have begun.

When I was applying to the school, the hallway between the practice rooms and the recital hall flooded when it rained, and you could hear rain from the leaking roof dripping onto the stage. Classes were sometimes canceled because too much rain would short out the electricity in the building. Sound ricocheted off the cement-block walls at deafening decibels, softened in the practice rooms with this impossible-to-clean coiled I-don’t-know-what hung on the walls which collected all the grime and germs from every person who ever walked into that room over the years. The bathrooms were atrocious. Some of the faculty were rumored to be creepy, and none of the faculty offices had windows in the doors.

I was accepted at all three schools. I was offered partial scholarships at Wheaton and Houghton; URI’s terribly underfunded music department had no money to hand out except a couple hundred dollars to cover my private lessons.

My parents made too much money for me to qualify for financial aid.

My parents outright refused to help me attend Wheaton because of the cost. They never did bother to see for themselves why it was my first choice.

That left a choice between cows and a car.

When my parents asked for advice about what to do about my education, they heard what affirmed their desires: “You get out of it (school) what you put into it.”

Well, that’s not exactly true.

There’s only so much juice in an orange; you can’t get more just because you squeeze harder.

I was expected to adapt and make do; the toxically-positive phrase “bloom where you’re planted” comes to mind. What I needed to really thrive was not the main concern.

I ended up choosing URI and found that my classes were full of students who didn’t like to practice or study. (URI had recently been named the #1 party school in the nation, and there was reason for that. Things were so bad that to combat the problem, the Greek system was essentially shut down for a time, and the campus was declared a dry campus.)

I also didn’t jive with my saxophone teacher and thought his saxophone always sounded like it was stuffed with socks. For this, and other reasons, URI just wasn’t the right school for ME.

Choosing a school is a very personal decision and one that can greatly impact your future trajectory. Students transfer all the time, when they discover partway through their degree that their current school situation is not working for them.

I got to that place. I got to a point where I was such an emotional wreck and wondering why I was even studying music that I wanted to take time off from school and figure things out.

However, my parents threatened that if I took time off, their help with any future schooling would be reneged. I had to make a decision amidst the turmoil: switch schools (Houghton being the only immediate option) or switch majors.

To sum up a story for another day, I switched majors and ended up graduating with a BA in elementary education and music, which did indeed change the trajectory and timeline of my life.

I don’t know what I should have done differently thirty years ago. Should I have resisted my parents and attended Wheaton, taking on student loans in order to be where I wanted to be, studying what I wanted to study? Should I have given up on jazz and saxophone and been cloistered with the cows at Houghton? Should I have stuck it out at URI with a saxophone teacher I didn’t like?

I can’t answer that question; it’s like trying to prove a negative.

What I can say is that I have learned that I need to do what is best for me. I have learned that being in a place where I can thrive is not selfish.

So, what does that have to do with NOW, thirty years later?

Well, after thirty years, my children are now grown. My super-supportive husband was willing to uproot and start over in a new place so I could go to school, working in a fellowship that I am particularly suited for, learning from a teacher who knows just what I need for the projects I’m pursuing, in a place I love.

Appalachian State was the only school I applied to, because I knew it was the right fit. It was all, or nothing.

It’s not just about a getting a degree. It’s also about closing wounds, meeting my own needs, and finishing what was started.

2 thoughts on “Thirty Years Later”

  1. You’re a beautiful writer, Heather! You’ve come full circle. I’m so happy that things are working out so well for you. And so proud of you for making hard decisions. You’re an inspiration!

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