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Taking Second Chance Reaps Big Dividends

Editor’s note: This essay was first published by The Buffalo News on June 23, 2010, and is reprinted with permission.

The novelist Andrew Greeley once said, “We’re given second chances every day of our life. We don’t usually take them, but they’re there for the taking.” Three years ago, on the threshold of 50, I decided to give myself a second chance, and thanks to Niagara University, I graduated with a master’s degree on May 22.

In 2005, I reached a crossroad in my life when my position was eliminated, interrupting a developing career and severing deep ties to an organization I loved.

When I applied for a similar job at the Castellani Art Museum, the art degree that I had never used turned out to be an asset, and I began back where I started, in the world of art. I immediately loved the museum and working on a college campus. Being immersed in a culture of learning was a tonic, waking me up to new possibilities. I started to think seriously about going back to school.

When Niagara launched the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, which enables students to design their own curriculum, I was intrigued. Other programs I had considered were not quite right. My interests were eclectic. I wanted management and the arts and communication and writing. I needed a degree program that could develop organically, as my career had.

It was appealing to have a second chance at being a student. Over the years, I had often regretted that I coasted through college and vowed that if I ever went back, I would be a different kind of student. When I was accepted into the MA-IS program, I made a commitment to myself that I would not just go through the motions, but give it my best effort to excel.

As a nontraditional student, out of school for decades, the introductory seminar was a crash review course in academic writing, citing sources and analyzing text. The library was a revelation — no more card catalog or microfiche, and the wonders of online research at my fingertips. In the beginning I had no idea how I would structure my courses, but somehow, by the end of that first semester, an amorphous concept had coalesced into a program of study.

The MA-IS program reflects the current reality of the working world. Gone are the days of the onetrick pony. The nature of work today is interdisciplinary.

In our current economy, fewer people perform an increasing number of tasks. In addition to a specific job function, workers must master ever-changing software and rapidly evolving technology. Critical thinking skills are vital. The ability to function well across disciplines is a valuable asset in the workplace.

My career up to this point has followed a meandering course. Learning on the job, I taught myself whatever skills I needed along the way. Graduate school gave me the opportunity — even the luxury — to study aspects of my work in depth, to analyze and write about it. I learned a lot. My brain hurt, I learned so much! What a gift, to go back to school in midlife and feel the mind stretch like it hasn’t in years. For me, graduate school was a youth elixir.

I’m grateful to my employer, Niagara University, for giving me this second chance, and to the friends and loved ones who have cheered me on to the finish line.

In the end, I have just one regret: that my parents, public school teachers who taught me to love learning, were not there to see me graduate. They would have been so proud, and I am grateful that their passion for education led me to pursue this goal.