What I Really Learned in College

A few years ago, some people from Alumni Relations invited me out to lunch so they could ask for my perspective (about 20 years after graduation) on what my Carnegie Mellon education has meant to me.  I was flattered, and it was such an interesting question to consider that I’ve thought about it many times since.

Of course, I learned things in college that have been relevant to my career.  It’s not so simple, though, as it might seem: “I wanted to work in Psychology, so I majored in Psychology and learned how to do it, and then I got a job doing Psychology and gradually got better jobs as I climbed the career ladder of Psychology.”  No, it was a lot more complicated than that, and many of the specific facts and skills I learned have had very little direct application to the work I’ve done, yet it’s certainly true that my education has informed my career.  I’d say my main career-related lessons from college boil down to these points:

  • I’m not an architect, and that’s okay, but
  • That bullshit about knowing your Concept actually meant something, and I was able to apply it to designing our bathroom renovation and our son’s loft bed.
  • Psychology is about a lot more than crazy people lying on a couch.  A bachelor’s degree in psychology, in fact, doesn’t qualify you to be a psychotherapist unless you also earn another degree, but
  • Psychology has a lot of practical applications to a lot of different careers.  For example, a new graduate with a bachelor’s in psych can get a job writing promotional materials for an invention marketing company.  Later, I had a supporting role in a major research study that could be loosely described as psychology, where my knowledge of psychiatric diagnoses came in handy.  But now I work in pediatric medical research–and I still only have a psych degree.  Studying the human mind opens doors to learning about, and doing, a lot of things.
  • Being able to write clearly is important.  Spell-checkers are no substitute for the skills that came somewhat naturally to me and were honed by several excellent teachers prior to college.  I argued with some professors, as well as students, about whether grammar and punctuation rules are just for small-minded people and can be disregarded by those with big ideas.  After years of seeing the effects of big ideas expressed coherently vs. fascinating details scrambled together in tangles of sentence fragments, I can say with confidence that everyone needs to learn writing skills!
  • My gift for spotting tiny errors is important.  There’s an entire field of human endeavor called Data Management that I never heard about before college, and I still didn’t understand what it was until I got a job doing it.  Now I can see that many of my activities (proofreading for high school and college newspapers, checking measurements in architectural drawings, baking, calculating loads on structural members, drawing in perspective, writing bibliographies for research papers, arguing on the Internet, making charts and graphs, collecting data from an experiment, killing time by playing elaborate mental games in which numbers represent things) were different ways of building the skills that I use every day as a data manager.
  • They were right to make me learn computers, as a user and as a programmer.  Carnegie Mellon required a basic computing skills class for everyone and at least one programming class for almost every major, in the early 1990s when many universities were barely using computers.  “They” also includes my dad, a computer enthusiast who was always dragging me over to learn about databases or something when I would rather be reading a book.  I was grouchy about it sometimes!  But being comfortable with the general idea of variables, getting used to doing stuff on a computer, and learning that I can give instructions to the computer all were tremendously helpful in preparing me for a career of making the computer help me manage data.
  • I don’t actually hate math.  Taking math classes is kind of miserable because I don’t pick it up as fast as some people and I tend to feel doomed when I don’t understand.  But when I can use math to solve problems I want to solve, and when the math I need is math that I now know how to do, it’s fun!  My seventh-grade self would not believe that I have a job where I do algebra and gobs of mental arithmetic every day, but here I am.
  • I’m not the smartest person.  Carnegie Mellon is a magnet for super-smart people, and I was relieved to feel kind of average there.  Although I’ve ended up programming in my career, I don’t work on nearly the level of my friends who majored in computer science–and the great thing about that is, when I hit a programming problem I don’t know how to solve, I can ask one of my friends!
  • I can work with and be friends with people of all races and religions and sexual orientations.  I never had much doubt about this, but growing up in a mostly white and Christian town where LGBT people were mostly closeted, I didn’t have much practice.
  • I can cope as a woman in a male-dominated environment.  Carnegie Mellon was about 70% male when I was there.  Political correctness was popular, but I did hear sexist comments at times.  The Internet was new, the few images that were laboriously uploaded and downloaded were mostly pornographic, and most students didn’t have their own computers–so when I was working in a campus computer cluster, it was quite common to look up and see porn on someone’s screen.  I survived.  In fact, I thrived.  If anything, I’ve had more difficulty navigating the politics of all-female groups than I’ve had working with men.

Then there are the things I learned in college that aren’t career-related but have been very useful in my life.  I’ll start with the one that most surprised those Alumni Relations people:

  • Getting through a demanding university is excellent preparation for parenthood!  I learned to survive long stretches with 4 hours of sleep per 24 (and not always the same hours), sleep through unimportant noise but always hear the alarm clock, meet deadlines even when there’s all kinds of drama swirling through my head and heart, keep trying until I find what will satisfy a capricious person who doesn’t communicate clearly, and find the humor in stressful situations.  Not that I’m perfect at any of that, but I’m glad I practiced those skills when I wasn’t responsible for a newborn.
    • Supporting anecdote: When Nicholas was only a few weeks old, he was refusing sleep so adamantly that both Daniel and I were awake for hours in the middle of the night, and one night I mentioned the names of babies at the La Leche League meeting and how glad I was that Daniel had agreed with me on a nice name instead of some of those others that are unaccountably popular…like Eli…and Daniel started stomping around doing a pirate accent: “Aarrrhh!  Lost my eye in battle and had to replace it with an eel!  Now they call me Eel Eye!  Eli!”  It was the most hilarious thing ever!  We knew it was funnier because we were so tired, and that reminded us very much of our college experiences, so in a strange way it made us feel younger and more hopeful.
  • I can cook without a kitchen.  I actually wound up with quite a well-stocked pantry in my dorm room, cooked in a hot-pot, and washed dishes in the shower.  Details are in my new article at Kitchen Stewardship.  (The title was changed to get attention.  I didn’t actually cook in the bathroom.)
  • I don’t need a lot of what I thought I needed because I was used to having it.  Living in dorms and then in apartments, I learned to adjust my lifestyle to work with less personal space, less storage, and fewer appliances and amenities.  Living without a car, I learned other ways to get around.  Now that I’m in my forties and a middle-class mom, I still don’t have all the things my parents had at this stage, because living without them helped me think about which things really make my life better in this crowded world.
  • I’m polyamorous.  I don’t feel any need to be “out” in a big way, but it’s something I learned about myself in college, and I’m glad it didn’t take any longer to recognize and glad that I knew people who could tell me the word for it and point me to a Netnews discussion board about it so that I didn’t feel so weird.
  • I’m not the weirdest geek.  One of the most special things about Carnegie Mellon is KGB, the social organization for geeks, where weirdness is welcomed and zany activities abound.  In KGB I met most of the best friends I have had in my life, including my life-partner Daniel.  We still attend at least one KGB event a year, and every time, even if we don’t know anyone in the room, it feels like a family reunion.
  • Public spaces and public services are very important in building feelings of community.  The entire campus was my home; large parts of most of the buildings were unlocked and available all the time; there were lawns for running around and benches for sitting, where everyone was welcome; free events and free food were frequent.  Life in the outside world should be more like that!  I support my tax dollars going toward parks, public libraries, festivals, and other good stuff we all can share.
  • Line-drying laundry is a feasible lifestyle choice that saves a lot of money and doesn’t take so much time.
  • I can survive without my parents.  But I still appreciate my parents’ advice in difficult times and want to talk to them regularly just for fun.  I wouldn’t be who I am today without the things I learned from my mom and my dad.
  • Pittsburgh is terrific!  I’ve lived here ever since.

What did you learn in college? What did you eat in college that horrifies you now?  Check out my reminiscences at Kitchen Stewardship!

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One thought on “What I Really Learned in College

  1. You know, I went on a road trip recently, and I completely agree that public services decide the feelings of a community. Really saw the differences in different places regarding warmth and community chemistry

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