Archive for March, 2012

Living on Easy Street

Near my college campus, there is a tiny road called Easy Street, which my dad pointed out with a laugh as he drove me a couple years ago. As a journalism major, my first thought at the time was “that would make an awesome human interest story, interviewing residents about whether the living is as easy on Easy Street as it is in the musical Annie!”

     This recollection came back to me out of the blue again recently. I couldn’t figure out why until it occurred to me that maybe it is because though I don’t literally live on Easy Street, I’m on Easy Street right now on the figurative highway of life.

     I would say I have definitely earned the chance to drive on Easy Street for awhile. While my journey through college has been rewarding, it has had its share of rough patches. Freshman year was defined by the simultaneous transitions from a cane to a guide dog, and from living at home to living in a college dorm. Due to a multitude of issues from a rocky transition to new technology, Gilbert’s depression when in the tiny dorm room, my longing for comfortable furniture and homecooked meals, and the stress of caring for an unfamiliar dog at the time in an unfamiliar setting, my parents and I decided it would make more sense for me to live at home.

     Sophomore year was defined by the combination of Statistics, a class that was very difficult for me, and the stress of coping with an ovarian cyst that the doctor feared was cancerous and had to be surgically removed. (Fortunately, it was determined to be benign). Second semester was defined by two classes, Environmental Science and Investigative Journalism, both of which required intensive research which was, and still is difficult for me.

     First semester junior year was relatively easy. But second semester, the combination of night classes three days a week, an english class and a public policy class where I read in a week’s time what I probably read for a whole year of high school, the stress of applying for internships on websites that weren’t always accessible and the emotional stress of a new job for my mom left me exhausted by the time summer vacation finally arrived.

     Last semester, first semester of this year, my senior year was the roughest of all. Because I did my internship over the summer, last semester was the first semester where I had three classes instead of four, so you would think it should have been easy. But one of those classes was another English class with a lot of reading and since the class only had five other students, I discovered the hard way that I couldn’t fly under the radar and not read everything. Interpersonal Communication was relatively easy with reading that was mostly easy and interesting and just a little bit of research, but this class was overshadowed by my Capstone course where I had to write my senior thesis. This required first brainstorming a topic. The scholarly language for the topic I chose is “communication apprehension between parents and college students.” In plain english, I studied whether the living arrangements of college students had any impact on the relationship with their parents. Then I had to find a diverse array of scholarly sources on similar topics that have already been studied–that intensive research beast again–and write a thorough literature review. Then my own research began. I chose to do quantitative research, so the professor pointed me toward a communication apprehension survey previously developed by communication experts that was deemed valid and reliable. I modified this survey a little bit for my purposes and posted it on SurveyMonkey.com. Once this was done, I thought the rest of the project would be smooth sailing, but that was far from being the case.

     The survey required 100 people to respond in order for it to be accurate. Despite a month of begging and pleading on Facebook and forwarding a link for my survey to professors I knew and asking them to pass it along to their classes, I only had 56 respondents when I returned from Thanksgiving break. With only a week and a half to collect 44 more responses, analyze them, put the results in a nice tidy table for the paper, discuss the implications of my results and create a tri-fold poster presentation, I was starting to have nightmares that I would fail this course and therefore not graduate.

     In desperation, I sought permission from professors I didn’t know to come at the beginning of a couple of their classes and plead with them face-to-face to fill out my survey. As of December 2 at 1:30 in the afternoon, the time I arranged to meet with another classmate in the computer lab to enter my data in to a statistical analysis software program, I had 98 respondents.

     When I had a meeting with the professor to discuss accommodations for this project and I told her I had never used statistical analysis software with JAWS before, she had the foresight to realize that by the time I gathered all my data, I wouldn’t have time for the frustrating learning curves of figuring out whether the software, known as SPSS (have no idea what that stands for), would work with JAWS. So when she offered to have another student work with me on this part, I accepted.

     Anyway, I still needed two more survey respondents. I am embarrassed to admit this, but desperate times call for desperate measures as they say. I asked my mom to come in with me and she visually got the attention of two more students entering the lab and summoned them to me so I could ask them to take my survey. The wonderful thing about attending a small college with a more intimate atmosphere is that despite the diversity of programs offered even in my field of Communication, a lot of the research classes are required for all disciplines, so any student you talk to at my college has at some point faced a similar desperate situation, or they know they will if they haven’t already. Therefore, the importance of building good karma, especially near the end of the semester isn’t lost on most students. With that in mind, both said yes and sat down at a computer on the spot. The 100th survey was submitted just in time for the arrival of my classmate who was assigned to enter my data.

     When the classmate gave me the results of the data she entered, the numbers didn’t look right. I am not a statistical expert by any means, but I could have sworn that tests of statistical significance were not supposed to yield negative numbers. But since there were no instructions in the book the survey was pulled from about how to score it, I just went with it.

     I didn’t look at my capstone project all weekend, mostly because I had to write a research paper for Interpersonal Communication and revise a personal essay for workshopping in my Creative Nonfiction class. To my intense frustration, my mom and dad decided to go to Indiana that weekend to attend a Badgers college football tournament which my sister’s husband bought tickets for but couldn’t sell. This meant that if I discovered the source of the mistake while they were gone, I would have no means of getting back to campus and meeting with the classmate again to correct it until my parents got back, so I just didn’t want to know. Knowing would only cause more stress.

     Monday I was able to write up the Methods section and meet with my advisor who showed my mom examples of tri-fold posters students have made in the past since she would be helping me assemble the poster in a visually appealing way. But this is not as much as I would have liked to get done because Mondays last semester were full of interruptions and those who know me know that I need long stretches of uninterrupted time for projects because I cannot think when I have to watch the clock. I had Big Brothers Big Sisters at 10:00, my interpersonal communication class from 12:00 to 12:50, English from 2:00 to 3:50 and choir from 7:00 to 9:30 that night!

     Still dreading the prospect of discovering a horrible mistake, I found some things to tweak in my literature review Tuesday morning and corrected some formatting issues in my parenthetical citations pointed out to me during a peer review exercise. When I got home from my Interpersonal Communication class that afternoon and couldn’t find any more excuses to avoid facing the music and uncovering my mistake, I went back to the SurveyMonkey web page which recorded the responses for all my participants. All afternoon, I tediously entered them all in to my Braille computer so I could visualize them easier and added up the scores again. I don’t know how to do in my head whatever statistical analysis programs do to determine statistical significance, but even just doing basic addition, I could tell something wasn’t right. Based on the scale I was using, the scores would have to range from 14 to 70, but some of my respondents were scoring higher than 70. Was my brain just fried and I was adding things up wrong? No. After doing it mentally a couple more times and then entering the numbers in to my braille computer’s calculator, I was still getting the same answer. Sure enough, about 9:00 that evening, buried deep within some disorganized notes I took at a meeting with the professor, I found where she told me to reverse the four negatively worded questions. Why couldn’t it say that in the book too?!

     I think I first let loose with some swearing. Then I think I cried. Then I wrote a frantic, extremely apologetic e-mail asking if there was any way the classmate could meet me the next day, December 7, to reverse the scores and re-enter them in to SPSS. The project was due on the evening of December 8. Then there was nothing I could do but endure a sleepless night.

     To my tremendous relief, the next morning I saw that the classmate had e-mailed me back. She could meet me at 2:00 that afternoon! It was kind of funny because whenever there is an extremely demanding individual project, I always feel as if everyone else has their act together, especially when peer reviewing other papers which were further along than mine. But when I got to the computer lab, my classmate laughed and told me that half the class was there as well. They all said hi to me and after reversing the numbers which went without a hitch, we commiserated about how we were all scrambling to finish stuff we would have liked to have finished sooner. “If the numbers don’t come out right this time,” I told them, “I’ll just have to resign myself to the fact that I have failed.” At this, the classmate helping me responded that I could just call it a “learning experience” in my limitations section and she wouldn’t fail me. This little shot of moral support made me realize that my big mistake may have been a blessing in disguise. If I hadn’t made the mistake, I would not have come to campus and would have found something else to stress out about working on the project in solitude. But coming to campus gave me just the boost of encouragement I needed from friends who could empathise with my situation.

     When Mom picked me up and brought me home again, I still had some tedium plugging my data in to spreadsheets, and some frustration trying to paste the tables in to my paper. I eventually figured out that the problem was I was using the 2007 version of Microsoft XL, but had saved my paper as the 1997-2003 version of Microsoft Word. The old version of Word and the new version of XL were not compatible. Once I re-saved my paper as the 2007 version of Word, it worked!

     I would stay up until 2:00 in the morning finishing the discussion section of my paper. The next morning, I would spend feverishly making last minute revisions, printing my paper, assembling it in a nice binder, re-typing snippets of my paper for the poster, printing them, and re-printing them when Mom said they would look better in a bigger font. That afternoon, Mom devoted to putting all of my words on pretty background paper and assembling the poster. The last piece was glued on about 3:30. The project was due by 6:00. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if it had been due in the morning. I also don’t know how I could have managed to do anything else, like prepare a speech. I was burnt out and eternally grateful that all I had to do was stand by my poster for an hour and field questions. But I was not asked any questions: I only had complements! On December 21, I found out that for the whole course which also included career preparation stuff, I earned an AB. I didn’t get around to re-claiming my binder from the professor’s office and seeing how I did on the paper until the day before Spring Break. But given that this senior thesis was worth 50 percent of my grade, I was able to bask in the joy of Christmas, knowing that I must have done pretty well on it!

     Somehow after all of this stress, I still had to find the energy to finish assembling an electronic portfolio for that same course due December 12, assemble an english portfolio and take my Interpersonal Communication exam December 14. I did find the energy to do these things, and then fell asleep every time I sat down the first week of break!

So this semester on Easy Street has been hard-earned.

     The first half of the semester, I only had three classes again. One course, Communication and Conflict, doesn’t meet until noon. Intro to Public Relations meets once a week. The official time slot for it on the registrar schedule is 6:00 to 9:35, but the professor often dismisses us by 8:00. A Technical Writing course I am taking is fully online, so I can do the work for it at my convenience and from the comfort of home! On March 13, I started a two-credit course that only meets for half of the semester on the first amendment. It is taught by the same professor I had for Communication Law junior year. He was a tenured professor who taught at my college for over forty years and technically retired the semester after I had Communication Law with him, but he still wanted to teach and so convinced the administration to let him create this two-credit course.

     For all these classes, there are the usual boring textbook chapters, but no literature or political tangents from the 1600s, (a few from the 1800s in my first amendment class, but he explains them thoroughly) and no classes that require reading an entire book in a week, sometimes less. There are papers and projects to do, but they aren’t near as demanding, and they don’t count for 50 percent of my grade. And yet, instead of enjoying Easy Street as my dad told me I should do, I have been feeling this strange restlessness.

     Partly it is because I know I cannot stay on Easy Street forever. Eventually, I will have to get a job. While my peers could get a part-time job, take a gamble and skip the health insurance since they are young and live on rahman noodles if they didn’t feel like working a demanding job, I will eventually have to find a full-time job with good benefits since I have a medical condition which requires several expensive daily medications and therefore cannot go a day without health insurance. Eventually, I would love to get married and rock a little baby or two to sleep, but just from observing my parents, I know that supporting a family, as much as they enjoyed it and loved us, was often times as far from Easy Street as you can get. So instead of enjoying Easy Street, I find myself worrying about the potential rough roads ahead.

     Partly, I am restless with self-doubt. It is strange to think about how four years ago, I was so passionate about the prospect of studying journalism. I was going to learn how to save the world, expose the truth! But over the course of my college years with many classes being taught by adjunct professors who worked in the field, I became more aware of the changing climate for journalism and how newspapers are being eliminated. Yet I stayed on the journalism course because it was still what I really wanted to do, and I didn’t want to become one of those students who change their major and end up taking seven years to graduate. I would just stay the course and cross the job search bridge when I came to it. Now however, with graduation less than two months away, it is almost time to cross that bridge and preliminary internet searches have yielded lots of science jobs, a few boring technical writing jobs for corporations and no journalism jobs. I can always attempt freelance writing of course or even find a way to make money blogging, but I am sure these things would have to be supplemental to a regular job as they are also very competitive and a person I know who does freelance writing for a newspaper told me he gets assigned two stories a week and makes $60 on each, not an income I could live on by any means. So this semester, whenever I talk to students from other majors like Criminal Justice or Elementary Education, I keep wondering “should I have chosen a different major with more employment potential?” When I hear younger students talking about classes they will take in the fall, I sometimes wonder “should I have taken that class?” In short, I have this strange uneasy feeling that I may not have made the most of the opportunity my parents gave me for a college education, as if I wasted a lot of money getting a degree I won’t be able to find a job with and I will just be another one of the many dissatisfied adults in America who never finds a job doing what they really wanted to do and so have to settle for any old job to pay the bills, live for weekends and vacations and dream of winning the lottery.

     But mostly, I am restless because once Easy Street ends, which will symbolically happen in May, I don’t even know what road I will be turning on to next. My mom and I have a lot of time to talk in the car on the way to and from school, so I have told her about these feeling of uncertainty. Her reply was that this part of my life was just another transition, of which I have had many. I transitioned from the Center for Blind and Visually Impaired Children, a special pre-school program for blind children, to a mainstream elementary school. It was rough at first, but soon, I adjusted and did great. I transitioned from elementary school to middle school in sixth grade. This transition too was rough at first, especially since I went from a school day that started at 9:00 to one that started at 7:20. But again, I adjusted and did great. The same was true for my transition to high school and college.

Mom has a point. I have been through many transitions. But I didn’t know how to tell her that this transition is going to be different from all my previous transitions.

     All of my transitions up to this point have been transitions from one school to another school. It was rough at times getting used to a new building, a new schedule and new people, but the basic structure of school always stayed the same, so at the end of the day, these transitions really didn’t change my life that much. But this time, I will not simply be transitioning to another school. I will be transitioning to another world. Furthermore, in the past I would tour each new school a year or two in advance since my parents, teachers and I knew with certainty which school I would be transitioning to well in advance. But here it is only a couple months until graduation and I actually don’t know yet what kind of world I will be transitioning to.

     (The state Department of Workforce Development is going to assist me in finding my first job. My councilor sent me a list of job developers to contact and ask questions to choose who I like best, but these summer-like record-breaking temperatures which remind me that in the working world, years and years of beautiful days like this may be spent in a windowless office doing a job I may not even be passionate about drains me of all motivation. Fortunately, it is supposed to get dramatically cooler tomorrow and I think some rain is in the forecast too, so thinking about a windowless office job may not sound so bad then.)

     However, as I write this, I am having a revelation. In retrospect, I can look back and realize the transitions to each new school didn’t change my life much, but at the time of the transition, I did have the same feelings of uncertainty, as if my life was being turned upside down. Sure, now I realize it was just another school building, but with each new building came new people, higher expectations and a new culture. This transition has a little more uncertainty in not knowing the name of the place I will be going to next and only being able to think about in its abstract name, The Workforce. But at the end of the day, it’s just another building, new people, new expectations and a new culture, all of which I have adjusted to brilliantly before.

     With that in mind, I am reminded of another piece of excellent advice my mom gave me at dinner one night, when I was fretting about my lack of a plan for my life but at the same time dreaming of having enough money to strike out on my own. Instead of thinking of life as a road and panicking because I don’t know which path to take when this road ends as I have been doing, she said she likes to think of life as a river that we all just flow along. Often, life isn’t something that can be planned out. Circumstances out of our control may change the course of events. I may get married to a husband who gets a job in a place I never imagined I would live as she did. These situations could be likened to unexpected currents that throw us off course, but no matter where the river leads, everything always works out. In fact, my mom pointed out that if we hadn’t ended up living where we did, I likely would not have chosen or even known about the fantastic college I am proud to attend or even had the wonderful resources and support that I was so blessed to have as a blind student all through school, the message being that sometimes, the river of life carries us to a better course of events than had we resisted the current.

     I have always been an optimistic person, and as pessimistic as parts of this entry may have sounded, this optimism hasn’t weakened. Given how successfully I have traversed the rough waves of life so far–my brain tumor as a baby, the blindness and other medical issues that the tumor caused, the all-night struggles with visual subjects like geometry and of course, all of the transitions to new schools– I know I will be able to navigate whatever unexpected currents and rough waves this river of life has in store for my future as well. So after graduation, I look forward to diving in to the river of the rest of my life with confidence and trusting that wherever the currents take me, everything will work out. Until then, I intend to enjoy these last two months on Easy Street.