Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ask the Administrator: A Fresh Start?

The break was a blast -- I’ll share highlights on Friday -- but when we came back I found this in my inbox,and it seemed like it needed a quick answer.  Some of it goes well beyond my expertise, so I’m hoping that some wise and worldly readers with different sorts of training will chime in helpfully in the comments.

A frustrated young correspondent writes:

After graduating high school in 2008, I went straight to community college. I knew the cost of a 4 year was too high for a part-time working student, didn't want my parents to pay for anything past one book, and was in limbo over what career or sort of degree I wanted to work towards. In the end, I decided a business degree was the best choice to work for since it possessed endless career possibilities. Upon starting, I did very well as I always did. However, I slipped fast halfway through; I'm a perfectionist to a fault. I was so ashamed of myself I couldn't even show up for my finals. It was already too late to drop as well. The reasons why I couldn't cope well with any sort of mistake and school life in general was because of my own personal problems. I was a loner and found it hard to fit in anywhere, life was emotionally difficult at home, and it felt like none of my classmates or acquaintances understood what I was going through. Eventually, I left my sales job from my mother's demands to find a more stable, "real" job. I found it difficult to find even minimum wage jobs at this point. The ones I was offered never went through and what little confidence I had left fizzled out. I knew what my problems were but the lack of support made me fall every time I made a meager attempt to stand up again. It kills me to say that I'm a very weak person deep down despite my appearance.
One day though, I ended up meeting the love of my life and finally received the kind of emotional support I had been looking for all my life. I began to regain my confidence and had goals again; I had something to work for. For a year, I moved out and my state of mind cleared up. But then my worst fear came back to haunt me. He had to move away for work where I couldn't follow. Although I found another job to help out, it wasn't enough to support myself so I regrettably moved home. I will be able to move out again in a year's time but right now, I want to make something of myself. Moving out gave me the fresh air I needed to deal with the suppression at home. I feel like I've wasted a lot of time but I still believe it's never too late to continue. The only thing stopping me right now is my hesitation over my past and the timing of my motivation. Honestly, I want to attend another community college but because gas is expensive, I feel forced to attend the same college from years ago. So these are my questions:
          1. Is it possible to reapply to the same college I never formally left?
2. Who must I talk to particularly to assess my situation?3. Will I still be eligible for financial aid for the first time even though I have a fully failed semester from 5 years ago?4. I intend to pursue a different career. In most cases, will I have to retake the classes that pertained to my previous degree choice, or any for that matter?5. I have less than a month to get things in order before fall classes start. Is it too late to attempt to reapply and sign up for at least 2 classes with my situation?6. In the case that I do get accepted to continue studying, will I have to retake assessment tests?7. If I have to go to the other college instead, must I get a transcript from the previous school? Or is it unnecessary because I have no credits to transfer? 
Thank you for reading this. I really appreciate any answers you may have for me. Although, you may be unable to precisely answer questions #3-7 because of different school policies, I figure you could help me out with the first two questions.

I’ll tackle specifics first.

Yes, it’s possible to reapply to the college you never formally left.  You’d be surprised how many students just walk away without giving formal notice; it’s something that every community college has seen before, plenty of times.  We have processes for dealing with that.  It’s okay.

Financial aid merits a discussion with the campus financial aid office.  Although some colleges have “academic bankruptcy” policies, in which you can wipe the slate clean and start over again, the federal regulations don’t recognize that.  It would be a good idea to make an appointment with someone in Financial Aid to ask about “Satisfactory Academic Progress.”  The way the rules are written, an earlier, “fully failed” semester could cause issues for you after your first semester back, just because your cumulative gpa would still look low.  Different colleges have different ways of handling that.

Assuming that you passed some classes before the disastrous semester, some of them may still apply to your new major.  On my campus, for example, every degree program requires English 101.  That means that if you took and passed English 101 as a business major, then switched to, say, a Psych major, you don’t have to retake English 101.  It carries over.  Anything you failed wouldn’t carry over, though, so if you failed English 101, you’d have to retake it.

For most campuses, it’s not too late to reapply.  (If you live in some California districts, it may be.)  Whether or not you have to retake assessment tests depends on local campus policy.  If you switch campuses, you’ll have to get a transcript sent over, but that’s remarkably easy.  I wouldn’t stress about that.  People do it all the time.  Even if you don’t have any credits to transfer, it will matter for financial aid purposes.

In terms of the price of gasoline, I’d suggest considering online classes.  Many community colleges offer them, and they can help with transportation issues and constantly-shifting job hours.  Of course, they require consistent internet access and considerable self-discipline.  But if you have those, online courses could allow you to start at your own pace and avoid a lot of driving.

All of that said, though, I’m a little worried about what sounds like helplessness.  This is where I’m hoping some of my wise and worldly readers can chime in.  

If you go in with the belief that you’re “a very weak person,” you’ll find ways to confirm that.  I’m wondering if the first order of business might be to find a way to engage the world that makes you feel stronger and more confident, entirely independent of what a boyfriend or parent does.  Staking everything on a boyfriend who will save you is awfully high risk.  If you can take care of yourself, instead of needing to be saved, you’ll be in a better position with guys anyway.  Being capable and confident can be attractive in itself, and it can help you contain the damage if someone lets you down.

Different people find that sense of capability in different ways.  If home is toxic, then look outside it at other options.  Some people find it at work.  Some find it through their church.  Some get involved in social or political causes.  Some become intensely involved with others who share an arcane cultural interest, whether that’s Star Trek or great country singers of the 1940’s.  Some like to build things.  Whatever stirs you, jump in.  You’ll find affirmation from other people, and you’ll have something that’s specific to you.  

The issues may go deeper -- I’m hoping some of my readers are more insightful on this than I am -- but sometimes it’s okay to start shallow.  Find affirmation where you can, and build on it.  Once you feel like you’re on a mission, instead of just waiting for the next external event to throw you around, you’ll be in much better shape to benefit from college.  

Good luck!  I hope you’re able to find something that stirs you, and that interrupts that inner voice that keeps telling you that you’re weak.  As the writer Annie Dillard once put it, the inner life is frequently stupid.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.