Don’t be me: Why you should be determined to finish college

Courtesy Gabriel Ivan Orendain-Necochea / Visual Editor

It was that great philosopher of our time—Chef from South Park—who reminded us that “There’s a time and place for everything—and it’s called college.”

Well, here’s the corollary to Professor Chef’s postulate—there’s a time and place for college as well. At least a time. And that time is from about 18 to 21 years old. Go ahead, give or take a year. But beyond that, things can get…difficult. What I’m trying to say is: Don’t be me.

Back in ye olden days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and before there was even a Facebook—the horror!—Young Jim McLauchlin was matriculating through the University of Minnesota. Lucky me, between that magic combination of a federal grant, state grant, university grant, student loan, and a part-time job at Target, I was able to scrape by with minimal forays into the world of Kraft macaroni and cheese and, like, no ramen.

Trust me: In 1987, it was a badge of pride if you didn’t have to stoop to ramen.

Then, between sophomore and junior years, I got a nice letter from the feds telling me that since I had earned $7000 in the previous year, well, I really didn’t need their financial aid any longer. Or that pesky loan. The state followed suit, and the university sure didn’t want to be left out of the party.

I staggered trough one financially bruising semester, did the “Hey, if I water down ketchup in the pan I can call it tomato soup!” exactly once, and threw in the towel. Told myself I’d get a job, sock away some dough, and come back and finish up someday soon.

“Someday soon” came 23 years later. I entered the mighty CSUN as a junior—after taking two classes at Los Angeles Valley College to fill in some prerequisites we didn’t even have back in dinosaur days (tho’ I did excel in Mammoth Clubbing 101 and RRAGH! Fire! Back in the day—you can see my transcripts).

Now. Before ranging too far down the pity path, lemme state unequivocally and for the record that it’s my choice to be here. The occasional university administrator is kind enough to remind me of this as well when I point out some policy that seems a bit odd or obtuse. They frequently even point to the door to guide my way should I not like the status quo.

But yeah, things are a little difficult. The central problem is as simple as time. And once again, unequivocally and for the record, I understand that’s a constraint common to all college students juggling multiple responsibilities. But the central difference, I believe, is this:

When you’re that 18-to-21-year old college student, you can, by and large, be that college student as the central part of your life. The job waiting tables at Olive Garden falls into the periphery. By the time you’re 43 creaking years old, well…I’ve got a job, freelance work, a wife, a kid, and then school. I also like to find some time to sleep and drink whiskey in there, too. (Note to self: Whiskey can help you sleep. Two birds, one stone, and all that.) School becomes a peripheral part of life, as much as I might like it to be otherwise.

Having had the (geez, does it sound pretentious to say this?) “benefit of experience,” my nickel’s worth of free advice to anyone who might be in my circa-1988 position is this: Constant forward motion. Heavy on the “constant.” I really, really wish I would have had the wisdom, the foresight, the balls, or whatever it was at the time to have just taken one night class per semester and keep moving.

“Someday soon” rarely comes. I know I’m actually fortunate to have found a way back. Barroom floors and tabletop gaming stores are littered with tales of “coulda-beens” and “almost-weres.”

I think I’ve dodged that bullet. Or at least I’m on the path.

So there you go. There’s a time and place for college. For 90% of you reading this, it’s now. Recognize this. Take advantage. If things slide, there’s no shame in taking one night class at community college until things level out. Your lesson for the day: Constant forward motion is your friend.

Or, put perhaps more simply: Just don’t be me.

—Jim McLauchlin is an honest-to-God 43-year old man working on a bachelor’s degree. Scary as that may seem. Don’t be him.