“I Graduated Nine Years Late,” or “That Time I Sent One E-Mail and Got a College Degree”

High school was a whirling, frantic, fantastic, sober blur.

I add “sober” because when most people say that school was a blur, they’re referring to alcohol or drugs. Those aren’t really my style. I just kept busy: I worked part-time a few places, volunteered at my church, played soccer, and tried to make those years the best years of my life.

College, then, came quickly, and I was woefully unprepared. I had coasted on my smarts through high school. College required real note-taking. College required critical thinking “outside of the box,” and these were skills I learned about 2 years too late. I failed more classes than I’ll proudly admit. I thought I could keep working as much as I was working and be fine enough to focus on my studies. I was wrong.

I attended Fairmont State University for 5 years… and I still didn’t graduate. I was pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, not because I wanted to write or work in a library but because I wanted the life perspective that only a few thousand years of literature can provide. Psychology has always fascinated me, so I minored in that, but I didn’t want that to be my focus. I wanted to read voraciously, so I did… I mean, in between work. And church. And girls. And friends. And… well, in short, I was a terrible student.

I was going to give it one more semester: I only needed two more classes to graduate. To this day, I am two classes shy of my degree in English Literature. Both classes, unfortunately, follow a standard college-life schedule: Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 10:00, or Tuesday, Thursday at 1:30. In other words, not conducive to the working adult’s schedule. I had basically given up on ever getting my degree, unless I transferred all my credits into an online university and switched to something generic like “Business.”

Then I was offered a job. The best job, actually: traveling the United States and playing guitar for a living. And it took me three years to look back and even consider regretting it. I lived what I loved and I loved incorrigibly. But I didn’t have a degree when everything fell apart, for the center could not hold, and mere anarchy was loosed upon my world (okay, okay, I’m done with the literary references, I swear).

So I dropped out of college. And I played. And I met a girl. And we got married. And the band got conned out of all our money, and to this day, who exactly conned us is up for debate. So I got a ‘real job,’ and I’ve gone from job to job in an effort to find the best way to support my family ever since.

I started working in Morgantown, WV; a popular hospital in the area had great healthcare benefits, so I went for it. I met a co-worker there who is about as ‘go-get-em’ as they come, and he’s not afraid to be blunt. He encouraged me to look into tuition reimbursement options through the hospital and to look into WVU’s RBA program.

“A… what program?” I distinctly remember asking.

The Regent’s Bachelor of Arts, or RBA for short, is a program designed for working adults. In short, I can combine my old college transcripts, any KLEP tests I’m willing to take, any online courses I’d like to take, and real-world life experience for college credit, and I can finally graduate. For example, I worked in a bank as a personal banker and small business specialist. I could argue that based on my job duties, it would be redundant for me to take three courses: BUSI 1104 and 1108, as well as ECON 1104. I would write papers explaining how I learned the materials taught in those courses, and a board would review them, and grant the college credit represented by that knowledge.

So I did some reading and research on what it takes to get into the WVU RBA program. And I thought to myself, “I wonder how many credits will transfer from FSU. Heck, I wish FSU had a RBA program. I mean, surely…”

The Google-fu is strong with this one.

I was at work one cold, early January morning when I found out about the program. I did not have my college transcript with me, and I wasn’t sure when I would have time to find it and compare classes to the class-requirement list. However, I saw an e-mail address. So I scribbled it down on a post-it note, and on my lunch break, I took a chance:

“Good day! My name is Joe Barnosky, and I am a former student at Fairmont State University… could someone, in their spare time, review my transcript and let me know what classes I would need to take in order to graduate with a RBA from FSU? Thank you for your time!”

A month went by; I heard nothing. I kept thinking to myself, “I probably just need to call them next week,” except next week kept turning into the next week, which turned into the next. Getting things done quickly is hard for me, particularly when there isn’t a deadline. I told you I was a terrible student.

I’d honestly given up on it, pushing it off to the nebulous future, when I get an e-mail back at the end of February:

“Mr. Barnosky, congratulations! You meet all of the requirements for a RBA… you can graduate in May.”

I can graduate in May.

No thought has made me this happy since either “it’s a girl” or “she said yes!”

I have known, deep down, that I went to college and became what I wanted to become: a more-open-minded individual, a quick-witted sounding board with a wide mental schema to share, an educated man. But I haven’t had the paper to prove it, and that has been unwittingly detrimental to me. It’s like I’ve been trying to convince myself of it. The change didn’t happen at an identity level, just an action level. It was my history, not my person. I was not a graduate. I was a quitter. I was a person who could get things started, but I couldn’t finish. I set a terrible pattern in my life, and I’ve spent far too long trying to prove to myself that I’m not what my lack of a degree showed.

I ‘walked’ on Saturday, May 12, 2018. I sat in a tiny chair accidentally rubbing legs with fellow graduates for a long time, waited for my name, and when it was called, I walked across the stage, shook a few hands, posed with my degree cover, and accepted a simulation of my diploma. I walked. I graduated college nine years late, having taken no more classes and having put forth no more effort. The hardest thing I did was send the e-mail and hope. The second hardest thing I did was climb the hill to the campus bookstore to purchase a cap and gown. The third hardest thing I did was stay awake during the ceremony.

In the month after that awesome-but-very-long Saturday, my life felt different. I did more. I felt all adulty. I coordinated with my dad and installed two gravel walkways around my house. We dug a water drain. I re-balanced our family budget. I arranged tax payments for county taxes. I re-vamped my Google Calendar to account for my crazy rotating work schedule… for all three jobs. I booked worship leaders to cover the weeks I can’t be at the church. I organized everything and did the things I organized, because that’s what graduates do, they ‘adult’ well.

It was an identity shift: not what I’d done or what I could do, but who I became.

I had been applying for worship leader jobs all over the country, though heavily focused in Florida, California, and Texas; I wanted to take my family somewhere warm and fun. 

In the year prior to graduating, I had applied to over 100 churches and had gotten back 7 possible chances, even making it to a Skype interview with one, but none of them panned out.

I updated my resumé; I’m now a college graduate. I started applying for more worship leader jobs, as a graduate. In three weeks, I’d sent 15 applications. I had 9 positive responses, 7 of which went to phone interview, 4 of which went to a second round.

I was away at church camp, on a solid break from applying and checking applications when I got a phone call from the man I would soon happily call my boss.

9 years. 1 e-mail. 1 degree. 1 job of a lifetime.

I am so happy to be here now.

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