I Overcame My Learning Disability and Went to Back to College ... in My 30s
There were times in my life when graduation season didn't make me happy at all. I'd go to commencement ceremonies and feel sad, longing for a degree of my own. But it always felt far out of my reach.
That's because I have a learning disability that makes math seem like Greek to me. Don't ask me to do linear algebra. I can't. But in California, where I live, you need to pass algebra to go to a state college. You also need an extra science class like astronomy. To take astronomy -- you guessed it -- you need to be able to do algebra.
I tried taking basic math classes at the local community college, but I always got lost -- even when I asked for help and worked hard. I gave up after a while and drifted. I couldn't understand why it was so difficult, why some people had college degrees but seemed dumber than a sack of hair. I was bitter.
In 2002, the year I turned 30, I had been unemployed for a whole year. I sent out resumes every day, but nothing was working. I was stuck. Something had to change.
I made a list of things I was good at. One of them was working with small children. Maybe I could land a position at a pre-school. I marched back to my community college and signed up for 15 units of classes. I was nervous, but I knew I had to do something drastic.
What I found surprised me. School turned out to be amazing. In the six years since I'd last tried to go, it had become a whole different world. People could now get their books online. Students knew what to expect from teachers thanks to several professor-critique sites. I studied, and I made friends. I was happy.
I met with a counselor and asked him about transferring. He did the same song and dance about math I'd heard many times before.
"You know, some people aren't meant to transfer to four-year colleges," he told me.
In the past, when I'd gotten this speech, I'd never said anything. This time I spoke up.
"I know that, but I want to transfer and get a degree," I replied. "Please don't defer me from my dream."
Right after I uttered the words, I looked around, wondering for a split second who'd said them. It couldn't be me. But it was.
I also took an unpaid job at the college day care. While I loved the children, the expectations were overwhelming. I revised my list that summer. Discouraged, but not giving up, I was told I was good at one-on-one relationships. I signed up for a tutor training class.
One day, I ran into a woman who oversaw a computer lab for disabled students. Could I take over in the afternoons as a lab assistant? she wondered. I told her I could.
So I juggled both jobs. I could've gone on like that indefinitely; I was so glad to be working again. But I had to stay focused on my future. California was going through a bad financial crisis, and I had to decide if I was going to stay there or move and do something else.
Then I remembered Mills College. I'd always thought there was no way I could get in. It's so expensive, so la-di-da. But after looking into it, I learned they had a great English department -- and didn't have a math requirement. It was meant to be.
So I sent in my application in and prayed. No matter what, it would all be okay. If push came to shove, I thought, I could even try algebra again.
A month later, I got the big envelope in the mail -- the good kind of reply that most other people looked forward to when they were 18. I was 31. And I nearly fell down when I saw it.
I took my dad to the campus that was now mine. "This college is perfect for you," he said. I pointed to Toyon meadow, where commencements were held. "Someday I'm going to be sitting here in my cap and gown," I told him.
Two years later, I was. I sat with my friends, listening to Senator Barbara Boxer give her keynote speech. Dad sat up front, beaming. I'd never seen him look happier.
When they announced my name, I started to weep. I heard shouting and saw my mother, my cousin and my friend waving and cheering. I waved back.
"Well done," the provost said.
Afterwards, I had a party at my house, and people from all different parts of my life were there. This is it, I thought. This is my magic time. This is everything.
Now, as I approach my fifth-year reunion, I still keep my degree on a bookshelf, along with a graduation card someone gave me. For the longest time, an appointment reminder about transferring colleges was tucked next to it. It was a good token of the valuable lesson I learned. The first step toward changing your life is never easy. But boy, is it worth it.
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