The Rapidian

My road to getting through college, a 32-year personal journey

A college education is something that no one can ever take away from you. Read more from Ron Lemmon in this piece in our first-gen series.
Graduation time!

Graduation time! /Ron Lemmon

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College?! We never talked about it in my family -- we didn’t have to. My father owned his own business as did my grandfather, and our family didn’t “waste time” on college. We were self-made, and my future was the family business. None of my brothers and sisters attended college, and looking back through the entire family history, no one had ever attended college. We always were self-made. That was it -- end of the story! In addition, none of my high school friends talked about college. Their lives would be like those of their parents – either going to work on the line at General Motors, Steelcase, or another manufacturer or joining their family’s business.

It seemed simple enough to an 18-year-old. We know it all at that age, of course – or at least I did! Then real life started taking hold. Realizing that I wanted something different, I left the family business shortly after high school and was fortunate enough to find an entry-level job with a high-powered financial firm. I found out over time however that my “self-made” status only impressed me. It didn’t get me very far. More than one person said my education was limited to “OJT” (on the job training); others said all I had was a degree from the “School of Hard Knocks.” I learned my first important lesson about a college education -- it gives you options. Without one, mine were likely to be limited. 

My journey to college started 13 years after high school, driven by the comments of colleagues and superiors about my lack of a college degree.  I started one class at a time at the local community college. But after only three classes over three semesters, I stopped. I had a ton of excuses -- my son was born, then I got divorced; I was busy at work, and in spite of my lack of a college degree, I had managed to become very successful.  And no one really in my family or circle of friends cared whether I was in college or not. I learned a second important lesson about a college education -- you have to want to be educated; you can’t do it for others.

I was 21 years out of high school and very successful, but I felt something was lacking. I arrived at a point where I decided that I wanted to complete my education, this time for myself. Coincidentally, about that same time, I married again. My wife was highly intelligent and college-educated, and she understood my desire to finish my education better than anyone ever had. It wasn’t easy --the days, nights, and weekends of classes and studying while working full time and raising a family. And it certainly wasn’t always comfortable being in class with students young enough to be my kids, but this time, it was different. I knew what I wanted, and my wife was behind me, 100%.

I finished my Associate’s degree, then moved on to earn my Bachelor’s degree, which was awarded 27 years after my high school graduation.  The third lesson I learned was you must have a mentor and support person to encourage you to achieve your dreams and goals. My wife was that person who pushed me when I needed it most over those years.

This story of a non-traditional route to a college degree could end here, but three years later (30 years to be exact after my high school graduation), I approached my wife at dinner one night and told her I wanted to quit work totally and focus on getting my MBA in Finance, with the goal of getting a job teaching in college. It only took a couple extra glasses of wine, and I convinced her to stand by me, which she did through the time it took to complete the MBA degree. 

Thirty-two years after I graduated from high school, I walked in my first college graduation ceremony. I had graduated at the top of my MBA class.  And of course, initially I did not want to go to the graduation. I said I was a bit old for a graduation ceremony. I won’t say my wife put her foot down, but I went grudgingly, and in the end, I was glad I did! Our son and daughter who were in college themselves came to the ceremony, and my mom and dad, who had never witnessed a college graduation were there as well. My wife and biggest supporter arranged all of this. There were tears from just about all of us, and each had a different reason for crying, but for me, I was just glad to be done with school! The fourth lesson I learned is to always celebrate your accomplishments and share the experience with those who supported you through the difficult times.

The ultimate lesson I learned about a college education is that it is something that no one can ever take away from you. Once you earn that degree, it is yours, and no matter what happens in the future, it will always be yours. There are many things you can lose in life – your job, your money, your health, your home, your spouse – but you will always have your education and that college degree. It will open doors for you and will give you options.

Don’t give up – even if you don’t come from a family where a college education is the norm, even if your friends are not attending college, even if you have to take one class at a time, even if money is a problem, find a way and keep going! A college education will open doors for you, it will broaden your horizons, and in the end, it is yours to keep for your entire life.

P.S. And yes I did get the full time faculty teaching position in a Liberal Arts college and retired recently after 14 years teaching to work spend more time in my real estate practice. Dreams do come true!

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