Why I took 15 years to get my bachelor’s degree

I went to college in 1997. I didn’t want to go to school.

In high school, I wanted to become a lawyer. I enjoyed debating, and I thought I’d be good at it. Later on, I thought becoming a doctor would be a good choice, specifically an obstetrician, helping babies come into the world.

But somewhere between 18 and 21, I changed my mind. Going to school for 10–12 years didn’t appeal to me. Heck, for some reason, I wasn’t even interested in an undergrad degree. I had these pie-in-the-sky dreams of starting at the bottom of some company, working my way up the corporate ladder, and eventually owning the company. I could become rich without going to school.

After three years in the corporate world, I realized that this was unrealistic. Maybe it was impatience. Maybe it was naïveté. Maybe it was a lack of network. Maybe it was something else. But becoming a C-level employee of a multimillion dollar company just wasn’t going to happen.

So I decided to break my vow and go back to school. I was still young, and I had a chance to still make something of myself.

I didn’t know what I was doing.

I signed up for what ended up being an associate of arts degree through Douglas College in the Greater Vancouver area. I picked a bunch of classes I liked, having no idea if they met graduation requirements. I took 3 classes per semester, not realizing you needed 5 to have a full semester. I was literally ignorant of postsecondary education. It was completely foreign to me. When people said “undergrad”, I had no I idea what they were talking about.

After one year, Mary and I packed up all the belongings we could fit in a 12×5×6 trailer, hitched it to a 4-door mid-80s sedan, and drove 23 hours to Lethbridge, where I had transferred my education to the University of Lethbridge.

Somehow, I registered for a bachelor of arts with the Faculty of Arts and Science. Again, I had no idea what I was doing, and signed up for courses that sounded cool and not enough courses to count as a full semester. I took a lot of French classes, which allowed me to work towards a French major, without even realizing I was working toward a French major or what I would do with a French degree.

A classmate told me he was going to become a teacher. I thought that sounded cool, and I liked teaching. He said he was meeting with the Faculty of Education to enter the faculty. I didn’t know what that meant, but I somehow managed to set up an appointment with an advisor. I was too many courses shy of being able to enter the faculty, so I had to wait until I had a few more semesters under my belt.

To pay for my schooling, I took out student loans. I had no savings. I couldn’t rely on my parents to pay for my schooling. I had to inheritance or trust fund to draw from.

It worked fine for my first year. I applied as normal for my second year, but then I got some devastating news. Because I hadn’t lived in Alberta long enough to be considered an Alberta resident, I couldn’t qualify for Alberta student loans. Because I wasn’t enrolled in a speciality programme not available in BC, I didn’t qualify for BC student loans. That meant we qualified for only federal student loans. And that came to only $5,000. For the entire school year.

After automatically deducting our on-campus housing costs at the start of the semester, we were left with roughly half of the student loan to cover our living expenses, tuition, books, and other fees for 10 months. I had a part-time job working minimum wage, which helped a bit, but paying bills was an exercise in giving what little money we had to whichever company complained the most. That eventually evolved into whichever collection agency complained the most.

Eventually, the bills had fallen behind so much, that one creditor took us to court. That was not a fun experience.

We met with a credit counsellor, who contacted all our creditors, and arranged a reasonable repayment plan. Even with the repayment plan, I had to drop out of school to work full time so we could get caught up on our bills. I had quit my previous job because it aggravated arthritis in my hip, and I couldn’t walk. I found another minimum wage job at a local independent grocer. After only a month, the owner laid me off because they couldn’t afford to pay me anymore.

I found another job. This one was full-time and paid $2/hour over minimum wage. That little bit extra significantly helped us get caught up on our bills. It also allowed us to buy food regularly. No more rolling pennies to afford a bag of fruit. No more standing in the grocery store aisle trying to decide whether to spend our last $20 on a package of diapers for our new baby or a week’s worth of groceries.

After 6 months, I realized again that this wasn’t going to work for the long term, and I enrolled at Lethbridge College. The sons of a former boss both had attended the multimedia production programme there, and as a self taught web designer of 3 years, that seemed to be right up my alley.

I managed to stay enrolled right through the end. I didn’t have to worry about taking the right classes because it was a cohort programme, and everyone took the same classes each semester. I had been in Alberta for 2 years, so I qualified for provincial student loans. Money wasn’t an issue. Well, it sort of was, but we could make it work—even with 2 children by the time I graduated.

For my practicum, I managed to land a spot in the Faculty of Management at the University of Lethbridge. I managed their website with another person. Luckily, it was a paid practicum, and I was paid $4 over minimum wage, which helped tremendously.

Luckily for me, after my final semester finished, my boss kept me on in a full-time position. It began as a contract position for a year, then a full-time, permanent, unionized position. It ended up being the best paying job I ever had.

About a year after my position became permanent, I discovered that university employees get free tuition, so I decided to go back to school again. This time I met with an advisor to see what my options were.
I chose a new media undergrad degree because it best fit with my job. Unfortunately, my boss said I couldn’t take more than one class per day, so I still couldn’t take a full semester’s worth of classes.

One of the classes I had to take in my first semester back was an introduction to drama course. I fell in love. I found passion in my studies. A new media degree wouldn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know (I knew more about web design than my instructors, both at the college and the university). I figured if I was going to get a degree that I couldn’t use, I might as well get one that I could enjoy getting. So I switched to a drama major.

After only 2 semesters, we realized that even with the free tuition, it was tough to budget for the additional fees, books, and other education costs. I scaled back to one class.

But after just one semester of only one class, my boss assigned me additional duties, requiring me to be available throughout the entire work day. That was the end of my education journey. I was halfway through my degree.

Fast forward 5.5 years, and I was laid off from the university. The university faced budget cuts, and our department lost half of its employees. Oddly, the ones with the most seniority were sent packing, while those who had been there the least amount of time managed to stay on. I had been working there for 9 years by this time.

I got a severance package, which gave us about 6 or 7 months for me to decide what I would do. Mary and I decided to try starting a business. To make a long story short, despite our best efforts to research its viability, the business left us with some valuable life lessons and $35,000 in business debt. We never pocketed a single penny.
About 6 months after being laid off from the university, I found a job in logistics. I worked in logistics when we were newlyweds and when I had decided to go to Lethbridge College. It felt good to get back into it, despite taking a 50% pay cut.

Unfortunately, it was a caustic work environment. Within two months, I had developed anxiety and depression. The following 4 months were probably the worst period of my life. I hit rock bottom. I felt so low.
I sent out so many resumes and responded to so many job ads just so I could get out of there. I had probably 12 interviews. But no job offers came. That fuelled the depression.

I was watching general conference, and the message I got from it was that I needed to take control of my life. I felt empowered. I knew that I could no longer depend on other companies to fish me out of the situation or for my current employer to change the work environment. I needed to be my own agent for change.

I could think of only one thing I could do that would get me out of that job: school.

I immediately registered for school. After receiving my acceptance letter, I gave my boss my two weeks’ notice. A week after my last day, I was sitting in my first class.

I had 19 classes left to take to finish my degree. I took 4 that summer, 6 in the autumn, and 6 the following spring. I planned to finish my last semester with just 3, but I discovered that with all the French classes I had taken, I could qualify for a French minor if I took one more French class. So, despite not speaking French for 13 years, I also took an advanced French grammar class.

This time was different. This time, I was staying in school. No matter what happened, I wasn’t giving up; I was going to finish.

And I did. I became the first person in my family to graduate from university. And I was 40 years old.

At the time when most people are enjoying the peak of their career, I was only now walking across the convocation stage.

I have to play catch up now to my peers. But I don’t get a 6-figure salary to do it. No 6-figure salary to help me pay for my student loans. Instead, I get to pay out of my paycheque for my spouse’s education; she doesn’t qualify for student loans.

But all that is a story for another time.

This is why it took me 15 years to get my undergrad degree.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

3 replies on “Why I took 15 years to get my bachelor’s degree”

It took a long time, but you did it. For the record, I’m not taking 15 years to get my undergraduate or my graduate degrees. 😉

You should pat yourself on the back. Do you know how rare it is for people with ADHD to complete a university degree? You did it! Congratulations! Children with ADHD need role models like you. They can do it, too, but not the way most people do it. It takes adaptation, thinking outside the box and more time. Parental support along the way helps, too.

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