As the old joke goes, plenty of people go to school for nine years: They’re called doctors.

By the time I graduate in December, I will have been a student as long as Tommy Callahan in “Tommy Boy.” To put it another way, I’ve been here longer than our troops have been in Afghanistan — the longest American land war in history.

Like the Afghan conflict, my college strategy has had its setbacks. I’ve suffered from poor advisers; I’ve lost sight of main goals; I’ve thought the battle was over when in reality it had just begun; I’ve struggled to communicate with the native population and at times, lacked the resources necessary to succeed.

I’ve dropped out three times — at various intervals for various reasons — and had five majors: jazz performance, English, media studies, political science and finally, economics. (USM doesn’t offer a journalism major, or bicycle repair for that matter, otherwise I probably would have added them to the list.)

The common thread was that I never really knew what I wanted from USM.

I had no intention of going to college when I graduated high school; my mother convinced me to apply. My first foray into higher education lasted about 70 days. I lived on the Gorham campus and studied jazz. (I smoked a lot of marijuana, took hallucinogenic drugs whenever possible and occasionally practiced the upright bass.) I realized I was wasting my time, dropped out, and traveled around the country in a van, seeing the nation for the first time and “getting to know myself.” (To wit: I smoked a lot of marijuana, took hallucinogenic drugs whenever possible and occasionally practiced the guitar.)

I moved back to Portland and started playing in bands. Whenever I sensed my life was ‘missing something’, I’d take a class at USM. I’d enroll for a semester, choose a few interesting classes, then take a year off to play music and work in restaurants. I maintained that pattern from 2002 to 2006.

But in 2008, the sudden death of my aunt — a journalist — pushed me, for whatever reason, to start taking school seriously. I can’t describe why; I just suddenly and emphatically wanted to do well in college. So I went back and retook every class in which I received a grade lower than C. I stopped working outside of school, took out a ton of loans, and hunkered down to study. I was 25, and I was ready to start learning. Within six months, my GPA went from a 1.67 to a 3.2.

That I came to take college seriously at a relatively late age is nothing out of the ordinary. More and more college students are dragging out their education, taking time off to go to massage school or herd alpacas on the Venezuela plains, for instance.

Some researchers say that we are starting to see a new stage in development, known as emerging adulthood. This period, marked by indecision and a strange mix of ambivalence and ambition, finds many people in their 20s returning to their childhood home to “figure stuff out.” I never really did that, but I understand the impulse: With so many options, one is driven to try to slow down the spinning of the Earth.

At the end of my career at USM, I can say without reservation that college, for me, was not about academic learning. Sure, I picked up a lot of valuable knowledge (the definition of GDP, Freud’s Theory of The Uncanny, the history of the Middle East.) But college — or a liberal arts education, to be specific — is about becoming who you want to be, not becoming an expert in a field. If high school is about learning to fit in, as I recently read somewhere, then college is about learning to stand out.

Take it from someone who should be a doctor by now: Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re doing here. Experiment. Follow your interests. Take risks. That’s what college is for.

And avoid taking mushrooms at ten in the morning.

Enjoy the semester,

Dan MacLeod


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