I Earned a Degree, But It’s Not Really MY Degree

I was smart in high school. I graduated in the top five percent of my class, and I received a full tuition scholarship to any of the three public universities in Arizona. I loved learning. I loved being in honors and AP classes. Being “smart” made me, an awkward and otherwise unremarkable girl, somebody. I never thought much about college while I was in high school. College was an expectation, so I didn’t have to think too hard about it. Every adult in my life told me I would attend college, and so I did. I matriculated at Arizona State University on August 23, 1999 – my 18th birthday.

And I failed. Miserably. 

High school taught me to love learning and prepared me to get a good score on the SAT. High school did not prepare me to live on my own, create and maintain my own schedule, cook my own meals, make friends beyond the ones I had known since my childhood, navigate a world of dating, heal a broken heart, and party responsibly. I know that many teenagers learn these lessons early on, but I didn’t. I was sheltered, awkward, and shy. High school prepared me for the academic aspects of college, but when it came to everything else, I was lost. I found myself drowning as I struggled to grow up.

Thankfully, I managed to stay afloat.

I worked full-time while attending school after I lost my scholarships. I became a little less shy and made new friends. I learned how to persist after a heartache. The appeal of partying slowly diminished. I eventually grew up. It took me six years, and my college GPA was nearly half that of my high school GPA, but I eventually graduated from college. 

My life post-college was happy. I reunited with the boy I always knew I would marry, moved to Iowa, and… married him! We bought a house, adopted a dog, and had a baby. Motherhood has been the most amazing and rewarding experience. I even eventually found a job I loved. 

But despite my happiness, something was missing. 

It wasn’t until a random, chance conversation at a work meeting that I discovered what the missing piece was.  I learned that not only does the University of Iowa offer employee tuition scholarships for any full-time employee seeking to take classes, but my office would assist anyone enrolled in a degree-seeking program as well. In that moment, it became clear.

I wanted to go back to school.

I wanted a second chance to prove to myself that I was still the smart girl who once loved learning.  After that enlightening work meeting, I did some graduate school research.  Working fewer hours was not an option, so I looked at online programs and eventually applied to one.  Later, my office supervisor encourage me/told me to apply to UI’s highly ranked program.  I wasn’t sure I could manage an in-person program, but he was encouraging and persistent.  So I took the GRE, gathered up my terrible college transcripts, managed to scrape up a few references… and waited.

I got in.

I think the fact that I had a decade of work experience helped my cause (most students in the program come straight from undergrad).  The program accepted me, but I had no idea how I was going to make this grad school thing work.  I didn’t want to be in school forever, so I decided to take summer school and two classes each semester so I could graduate in three years.  I had a three year old, a 40 hour per week job, and absolutely no free time.  I wanted to do this so badly, but I knew I couldn’t do it alone.  I am one of the lucky ones—I didn’t have to.

This past May, I donned a cap and gown and walked across a stage with my family and friends watching.  I accomplished my goal and laid to rest that missing piece. 

I received my master’s degree. 

But it will never be MY master’s degree. Not really. The diploma may have my name on it, but it will never truly be mine alone. Yes, I was the one who gave up the hours of free time to read and write. I gave up my nearly perfect vision to those many hours of reading. I stressed over the papers and presentations. I earned the grades. But I didn’t do it alone, and this degree belongs to so many people beyond myself.

It belongs to my husband. Without his emotional, mental, and even physical support, I would never have survived. He took over my share of duties when I was locked in our office for hours on end. He parented more than his fair share when I could not. He shared in my joys and was there for me in my hours of need. He never made me feel guilty for the hours I spent away, and was always there when I needed him.

It belongs to my daughter. She was three when I started, and so mommy being in school has been her “norm.” But there were evenings when I couldn’t play with her. Days where we didn’t leave the house because I had to write a paper. Books I didn’t get to read with her and stories and conversations we didn’t get to have.  A huge part of my motivation in earning this degree was for her. I want her to see that hard work pays off. She absolutely adores learning and school, and I want her to see the value of education. 

It belongs to my immediate supervisor. She gave me permission to be away from work for class. She allowed me to leave early or come in late for meetings, assignments, and projects. She supported me 100% and was always willing to work with me to make the work/life/school balance actually balance. She was my greatest advocate at work, and I never would have accomplished this degree without her.

It belongs to my office supervisor. Without his encouragement and support, I would never have gone back to school. I would never have applied to UI. He is a genuinely kind person who wants everyone in our office to succeed and reach their professional goals. 

It belongs to my parents-in-law. My in-laws listened to my frustrations and anxiety and cheered for me when I succeeded. They were always happy to watch my daughter when my husband and I both had obligations.

It belongs to my family. My parents, brother, sister-in-law, aunts, uncles, and cousins cheered me on from afar. They were always there when I needed a word of encouragement or a swift kick in the pants, and their love and support kept me sane.

It belongs to my friends. They kept me company when I needed a break, listened to me when I needed to vent, cared for me when I needed to cry, and never made me feel guilty for being absent so often. There were invites I had to decline and weekends of fun I missed out on. At times, they provided me the confidence I needed when I couldn’t muster enough of my own.

It belongs to my co-workers. I am one of those rare and lucky individuals who works with the most amazing group of women. My co-workers always kept up to date on my progress and covered for me when I was in class. They exemplify the very definition of “team” and I love them dearly.

It belongs to my classmates. I made some amazing friends during my grad school journey, and I will never forget them. Some of the best support I received came from the individuals who were going through the exact same thing I was, and I hope that I was able to reciprocate the support they so willingly gave to me. 

It belongs to my professors. The faculty of my program saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They accepted me, taught me, expanded my understanding of the world, opened my eyes to my own privileges and prejudices, supported me as I struggled, and gave me confidence when I needed it. I suppose I can forgive them for ruining my eyesight with all of their assigned readings. 

Whenever I look at my diploma, or write my degree on a resume, I know that I will never forget those who contributed to my education. Permanently imprinted in my degree is a piece of each and every person who supported me.  I am eternally grateful to my amazing support system. I am lucky and blessed to have them in my life. Without them, I don’t know that I would have had the strength to keep going.  I don’t know that I would have made it this far. 

Grad school taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to, and that I don’t have to do it alone. I learned to value and depend on the people in my life who care about me.  No matter what someone is going through, having people in your life to help shoulder the burden makes it so much easier to bear. Life is too unpredictable to attempt to do it solo.

Caroline is an Arizona native who moved to Iowa in 2007 ‘for love.’ She and her husband live in Coralville with their 8-year-old daughter. Caroline works full-time at the University of Iowa and recently earned her MA in Higher Education Administration. Caroline is a self-taught sewer, fabric hoarder, Starbucks lover, wannabe graphic designer, and avid reader. Her greatest aspirations are to raise a kind, strong, and fearless girl and have a clean house.


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