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COMPASS proudly presents the second-place essay of the Reynolds student essay contest, sponsored by the Multicultural Enrichment Council.

by Preston Matson

There are certain small periods in our lives that exist as transitions, despite being cloaked in what appears to be stagnation and failure. They can only be seen in retrospect, and now that we are in the midst of March, I can see that I was in one such period during this past December, following the completion of my first semester of grad school. I had not undergone the intellectually stimulating and fulfilling transition back into academic life that I had imagined I would get by pursuing a Master’s degree in English at VCU. Yes, I had learned a great deal of useful skills that I knew I could take with me and use to my advantage as I chased my dream of one day becoming a professor of rhetoric and composition, but I had also seen certain things I couldn’t discount – things that tainted my rose-colored vision of life in academia at a liberal arts college.

One of the underlying assumptions that had driven my desire to go to grad school was the idea that grad students did not practice the same ironic detachment from their work that so many undergrad students did. I thought they wouldn’t have that same attitude of “if I can only get through this stupid degree I’ll be free to do [x]” that irritated me when I encountered it in most of my peers when pursuing my bachelor’s degree. This was not true.

The only thing that seemed to change was my cohort now exuded an even greater sense of self-assurance. They resented the professor’s control over the class, effectively scorning the same authority they were in the process of trying to attain. In the same way that John Steinbeck once described the American lower class as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, these students I shared a classroom with seemed to conceive of themselves as temporarily discredited experts.

I don’t mean to imply that they were fundamentally bad people – they weren’t. In fact, there were a few of them who I became good friends with. The problem was that I couldn’t connect with them academically. It hurt to realize that I had been chasing a dream that only existed in my head, but I knew that it would hurt even more if I forced myself to continue chasing it while discrediting these observations that I had made. I knew this, but at the time I felt too afraid to back out of a pursuit that had consumed my entire identity in the years leading up to it.

I spent winter break sulking alone in my apartment, trying to ignore the impending Spring semester in which I would need to return, hoping it would somehow be a better experience. I found myself thinking back to the previous summer, when I had begun to take an interest in auto repair – something I had cut back on once school started back up in the Fall. I realized that the weekend when I taught myself how to replace the front brakes on my car had been the most authentic learning experience I had undergone in recent memory, and it had nothing to do with what I now considered to be the main focus of my life.

I decided to do some research to find out if there were any trade schools or community colleges where I could potentially learn more about auto repair. I was impressed by the variety of course offerings at Reynolds, and figured that it would be in my best interest to at least give one of these classes a shot, given that the cost would be negligible compared to what I had already sunk into the Master’s program from which I was becoming increasingly ready to jump ship. I went ahead and registered for a class on automotive engines, and went back to trying to distract myself from the coming semester.

This is what I speak of when I refer to transitions that are not readily apparent. I signed up for this class feeling what can be described as indifference at best and existential dread at worst, but once the semester began and the days turned into weeks and on into months, Mondays and Wednesdays from 11:15am to 2:15 pm became my favorite time of the week. There is something freeing about making the trek to the Reynolds Goochland campus – it feels like an escape from everything I had boxed myself into prior to this.

People often sneer at college, saying that it is “not the real world” or some similar accusation of detachment from reality. In many cases this is true – going to a four-year school on your parents’ dime, worrying about little else besides making passable grades in a handful of classes that occur in sixteen week cycles is far from anything that the vast majority of people would call ‘reality’ by any measure. But the lack of reality in this experience is not due to the lack of responsibility it entails. It is the fact that when placed in these circumstances, one usually finds themselves amongst people who come from similar backgrounds, who are looking ahead to the same point. I submit that this is the primarily “unreal” feature of most modern American college experiences.

I say most because it is not universal. The exceptions to the rule are found in unlikely places, and I believe that Reynolds is one such place. Because of all the negative connotations attached to community college, some of their finest traits are taken for granted. Among these is the honesty and realness that is retained in the experience of learning in a place like Reynolds, a place where people from so many different walks of life have come to this mutual crossroads in pursuit of knowledge. When you are able to learn with people who are not all facing the same direction in life as you, it makes you appreciative of the fact that you crossed paths and were given the opportunity to learn with and from one another in the first place.

On my first day at Reynolds I felt nervous that I might stick out somehow, that I would immediately be outed as being blatantly different from the “typical” auto tech student, whatever that meant. My fears were quickly assuaged when I found that there was no such thing. I was here to learn about a different line of work than that which I had pursued for the better part of the past ten years, and my insecurity about this quickly gave way to a curiosity about what had led everyone else to this same class in this same program. It becomes hard to say that a college isn’t part of the real world when you see so many different parts of the real world represented all around you in the people you learn with. I was finally able to approach each new day with sincere enthusiasm, something that not too long ago was sorely missing from my life.

Now that I find myself halfway through my first semester at Reynolds, I see my enrollment here for the important transitional point that it was, a decision with significance that has only just begun to unfold.

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