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Know your school.

Riley L.
Bachelor in Liberal Studies
Middle Tennessee State University, 2006

My educational walk out of high school started with a huge misstep.

I began my college career at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, choosing it for its respected music business program. At the time, I hoped to pursue music as a career and thought it wise to have a base in the business side of the industry. The small size of the school was also enticing. Coming from a town of just over 2,500, a large school in a large city would have been too much to handle.

My only year at Belmont, I lived on campus, moving from dorm room to dorm room, and from drama to drama. Whether loud public blowouts, like the ones I got to experience, or frustrations kept on the down-low, there is always some drama in dorm-living, even if your roommate just sleeps with her TV on or brushes her teeth too loud.

I had chosen my school based upon the major and the city, and it worked out decently enough the first semester. I was where I wanted to be, integrating into the industry that I loved. I was in an Honors Program, where I got to take a streamlined, integrated path that allowed me to get out of some core classes I didn't want to take anyway.

By my second semester, though, I realized that the religious background of the school was going to be a problem for me. With the opposition of our belief systems, we were never destined to last. If I had gone beyond the academic illusion, and gotten my hands on a copy of the school's handbook prior to making my decision, I probably could have known that.

We didn’t split on good terms, Belmont and I. When I left there, I was in a relationship, living two states from my family, so I had no choice but to work full-time and move to apartment-living. I took courses a few at a time, at community colleges, at a state university in Florida, online, and finally graduated with a bachelor degree in liberal studies, with emphases in English and Sociology, from Middle Tennessee State University in 2006, nine years after I left high school.

Although I write for a living, I wouldn’t say I use my English degree to do it. I wouldn’t take back getting a higher education, though, despite my slow path to degree-holding status. I remember only some of what I learned in college, but there are nuggets, spoken from the mouths of the best professors, that will stick in my head forever, and the study of sociology, especially, kindled my natural desire for a deeper understanding of the world and the people in it.

After graduating, I entertained the notion of going on to a master’s or PhD in Sociology, even applying to some programs and getting accepted into a couple, before I changed my mind. Writing is my truest love, even over music. It’s what I want to do, and I don't need an additional degree to do it.

Since I worked throughout my many years in college, and made multiple cross-country moves, debt piled on top of debt in pursuit of my degree, and that debt is still largely intact. I wouldn't recommend doing it that way if you can help it, but I wouldn't recommend opting out of higher education due solely to financial constraints either. There's a lot of money out there to borrow if you want to go to school, and only you can balance the value of debt versus knowledge in your life.

If I could offer only one piece of advice, though, it wouldn't be financial. My advice is to know your school beyond its programs, its classes and its reputation in a field. Beneath every academic exterior, there lies a personality you can't always see through sparkly websites and promotional materials.

You don’t want to lose yourself to a school.

Along with that, I recommend being wary of specialty programs that let you skip core classes. One of the worst things about deciding Belmont was utterly wrong for me was discovering those six-hour Honors courses didn’t always transfer, and only transferred as three-hour courses when they did.

That is an expensive lesson to learn.

EduTrek Comments

  • Get to know the schools you’re applying to beyond the programs that they offer and their academic reputations.
  • Don’t let financial constraints keep you from going to school.  There are a lot of scholarships and loans that you can take advantage of, but be sure you carefully evaluate what getting a degree will add to your life when taking on debt.
  • Check to make sure the classes you’ll need for your program can transfer to other schools and programs before you get started.  If you need to change schools, you want to be able to take advantage of those credits you’ve already earned and paid for.  Be wary of specialty programs that let you skip core classes; they often do not transfer to other schools.