Blogs » Toni Marek: Blogger Extraordinaire » Confessions of a 30 (something) Sorority Girl (and how you can be one too)

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It may or may not be common knowledge that I dipped my toe into the “college scene” in June of 2010. I started during the summer with a couple of online classes. I wanted to investigate just how dormant my brain cells had become in the 14 years since high school graduation. You see, I joined the Army Reserves after graduation in 1996 and upon my return from Basic Training and AIT, I took a job as a loan officer at a small company in Victoria. I never lived the typical 4 year college life most of my previous classmates did.

I tried college in the fall of ‘98, but after my Dad suddenly passed away in ’99, I quit college. I didn’t care or really know that there were proper procedures to be taken when leaving college. I didn’t contact anyone and I just stopped attending class. Four years later, I became a stay at home mom for nearly 6 years.

Then, in the spring of 2010, I stood in line with countless others looking for a job. My resume was a sight for sore eyes and half of the time, I was embarrassed to even give it out. By then, I was a single mom and I needed to find something to do with the rest of my life. Based upon my experience, that meant I could work at any place that served food and alcohol in Victoria, or sell insurance. The days of volunteering for organizations and campaigns that reflected my beliefs and passions were over. A harsh reality was becoming very clear: I could no longer do what I wanted with my life.

Since I am the most stubborn person I know, I decided that there had to be another answer. I don’t think any less of someone who spends their life doing any of the jobs I turned down. I just knew that my brain’s natural response was to grow and soak in as much information as it could. I have never been happy unless I was climbing a mountain to reach some sort of goal. Some will say I will never be happy until I am Queen of the World. Some would say…

During a visit to the Texas Workforce Commission, a job counselor suggested that I enroll at Victoria College, as there were Pell Grants and other monies available for students. To me, this was brand new information. I was extremely ignorant when it came to the mechanics of being a college student. Fourteen years earlier, my foray into college life was funded with cold hard cash that I worked for. Now, it seemed as if there was a small flicker of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Then the questions started. Could a single mom who just started her 30’s really just waltz back into college? Could she even pass her classes? What if it had been too long since high school? What if she really was the naive, inexperienced, ignorant housewife she saw herself as?

After I wallowed in what seemed like an excessive amount of self-pity, I decided that if I was going to ever know the answers to those questions, I had to at least try. I also thought that if I did fail at this “college thing,” I could at least go back to the sales arena. I had always excelled in anything related to sales, but always hated the hours that surrounded those types of jobs.

That first semester was not a fun or easy one. Actually, that is a sever understatement. I had to take online classes because my children weren’t in school. I also found out that there was a proper way to exit college, and I could not receive any of these magical Pell Grants because my GPA had been sitting in the ballpark of -1.4 since the late 90’s. Again, I pounded people to death with questions and thanks to the awesome advisors at Victoria College, I found there was another glimmer in my tunnel with the light at the end.

That glimmer of hope was called Academic Fresh Start. Basically, everything I had attempted prior to June of 2010 was erased (ignored?) as far as my new admission was concerned. If I had to do it over again, I would have chosen to find a way to pay for (out of pocket) and retake the previous failed classes, because an Academic Fresh Start doesn’t really erase everything. That is another story for another time.

Once I became eligible for the magical money, I found that it was enough to pay for my classes, books, and a few happy meals. Those first two semesters I had as many as four part time jobs at any given time. I was a janitor, I gave out free food samples at Sam’s, and I spent 15 minutes a month doing inventory for companies like Adobe and AT&T (just to name a few). One semester I had a full time job that always amounted to a fair amount more than just 40 hours a week. That semester taught me more about time management than I could have ever imagined.

That same semester, I received a letter in the mail informing me that I had been invited to join Phi Theta Kappa, an international 2 year college honor society. I was delighted for a couple of different reasons. First of all, who doesn’t want to be a part of something Greek during their college experience? Sure, I was in my 30’s, but I had found out one of society’s best kept secrets: When you go to college, at any age, it makes you feel like you are 18 again.

Second, when I finished my first semester back at college, I was thrilled to find out that I had a 4.0. Me. The naive, inexperienced, ignorant housewife that had not cracked a book in 14 years had managed to not only conquer being a single mom with 237 jobs in one summer, but emerge 3 months later with kids that were happy(ish) and a 4.0 GPA.
That letter was validation for all of the hell I had been through in the semesters prior. Not only that, but after my induction into the Zeta Gamma chapter at Victoria College, in the spring of 2011, I found that letter meant so much more than validation and the “sorority girl” title.

That letter was the key that unlocked the door at the end of the aforementioned tunnel with the light.

Now, I live in the light at the end of the tunnel. No - I dance around in that light. I am now the President of the Zeta Gamma Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa at Victoria College.

I have met amazing people that I would have never been friends with, had it not been for PTK. I have traveled to new places and been introduced to so many different points of view.

Tomorrow, I am leaving for Denver for an entire week. There, I will attend the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Institute, which even Yale has admitted is better than the institute they host. I get to hear and ask questions of people like Laura Ling, Willie Lanier, King Peggy, and (Pulitzer Prize winning) Taylor Branch (just to name a few).

And a month ago I got another letter in the mail. This time it was from the Victoria College Foundation. This time I was being honored. The letter explained that I had been awarded a “Victoria College Distinguished Scholar Award.” Again, a piece of paper in the mail served as validation for the hours, sweat, and tears I had put into my new college experience. It was a bold slap in the faces of the people who made casual remarks about how grades and GPA really didn’t matter at the community college level or later, when I embark on my post-graduate job search.

More importantly, this letter outlined the details of a very generous scholarship. Meaning, because of all the hard work I have put in, I can now focus more on school and less on the part-time job listings.

When I decide to transfer to a 4 year university, I have about $40 million dollars in scholarship money available to me that most transfer students aren’t privy to. In the past, most PTK officers have been offered (nearly) full rides to 4 year universities and getting into their first choice is hardly ever a problem.

So what was the point of this tirade?

I wanted to fill you guys (what readers I have left) in on what I have been doing in the past few years. Secondly, I wanted to toot my horn, which isn’t a surprise to anyone that knows me. Third, I wanted to explain the benefits that come from being involved with Phi Theta Kappa. Just being a member is an accomplishment in itself, but being an active member or an officer reaps so many more rewards.

Lastly, and most importantly, I like to share my “Back to School” story with as many people as possible. There are so many women (and men) out there that are in the position I was in and I want them to know that taking the leap into (or back into) college life isn’t halfway as scary as it seems. I have found that sometimes, I am one of the younger people in my classes. I have found that even though I stayed educationally dormant for 14 years, I was always learning something and this made classes so much easier. I have also found that I didn’t know an iota of what I thought I knew, or what is possible for me to learn.

If you are reading this and you find there is even a small thought in your head as to whether you should go to (or back to) college, I urge you to answer with a resounding “YES!” If you have questions about the process, message me or find me on Facebook and message me there. If I don’t know the answer, I will point you to the person who does.

I am eternally grateful to the Victoria College Foundation and their board for the part they have played in this chapter of my life. Their scholarship makes it possible for me to spend more time taking my kids to the park instead of daycare or a babysitter. It may be a while before I can list anything other than “student” in the occupation field, but for now, I am satisfied with that and more time with my kids.

And I couldn’t ask for anything more.