Should I go to the extravagantly prestigious school of my dreams?

I'm an older student, and I could take a more prudent course, but...

Published March 29, 2007 10:26AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I grew up in an abusive alcoholic home, and as a result of plates and insults continually flying, I did miserably in high school. Despite my parents' worship of all things Ivy League, when I stumbled academically, my father declared me a worthless failure and my mother pretended I didn't exist. I begged to go to community college to redeem myself academically, but they said I couldn't live in their house if I did, so I grudgingly enrolled in secretarial school, which they figured was the best I could do. This training at least allowed me to find employment, though at a series of tedious jobs. (I realize that some people become wildly successful without degrees, but I always felt inferior and thus undeserving.)

It wasn't until shortly after my father had a massive stroke -- when I was in my late 20s -- that I was able to get out of my own way enough to enroll in college, and to my astonishment, I did extremely well. Shortly thereafter I moved to the West Coast with the intention of going to one of the public universities out there. By the time I'd met the residency requirement, however, I'd also met my future husband. After we married, I did return to school, but life events kept hindering my academic ambitions. In the past 15 years I have lived in eight states (the result of my husband's job hopping), had two beautiful children, and dealt with my husband's bout of clinical depression, which left us financially devastated because he was unable to work for nearly two years. I have tried, and to a great degree succeeded, to keep our children's lives as sane and stable as possible in this maelstrom, all the while chipping away at my degree whenever I had the chance. I have credits from six different colleges and have maintained a 4.0 GPA at each one. Last year I got my associate degree.

My husband is better now, and is securely employed at a company and a job he loves. I am working full time now, using those trusty secretarial skills. I have been accepted at two public universities near our new home, and until last week had every intention of enrolling in one of them next term, but then something came over me. Last week, after years of dreaming about it, in a whirlwind I applied to an extremely competitive, first-tier women's liberal arts college that has a special program for nontraditional students whose education has been interrupted. The program allows you to attend part or full time, so I could conceivably keep my job and take one class at a time until I finished my undergraduate degree. This school is not geographically convenient (although it is a drivable distance) and is outrageously expensive. I have absolutely no idea how I would pay for it if I got into the program. My husband is very supportive, as is my therapist, who believes it is exactly the right thing for me to do. She believes I will thrive in that environment and says I should just forge ahead and figure out the logistics later. Everyone I've talked to about this seems to think I have a very good shot at being accepted, but I won't know for a couple of months.

I'm in my mid-40s. I'm the only person who cares if, when or where I finish my degree. Logically, going to this particular school makes no sense, but when I imagine myself walking across the stage to accept my diploma from that school, my eyes fill with tears. I feel as though graduating from there would somehow vindicate and validate me in a way that going to a state school wouldn't. Also, I think it would be good for my children to see me do this -- to set my sights a little higher than I have in the past. My father is long dead, and my mother couldn't care less what I do.

If I am accepted, should I go?

Hesitating -- Just a Degree

Dear Hesitating,

Yes, if accepted, please go to this school of your dreams. You don't have to know all the reasons you want it. But you want it very much. It is one of the world's good things.

So go for it. Please go for it. Go for it because elite academia needs people who've dodged a flying plate or two. Go for it for all the world's dreamers who question whether their dreams are worth it. Go for it for all the world's minority parties and outsider voices and small strange people with big dreams and curiously insistent inclinations and seemingly trivial preferences and nearly unheard voices telling them that it just might work, it just might be the thing, it just might make a difference. Go for it for all the people wondering if their little notions even matter. Go for it because it's not just about you, it's about setting an example for your kids and your family and your neighbors and friends. Go for it because somebody once told you not to. Go for it because someone told you that you weren't worth it. Go for it so you'll have a story to tell about courage and trusting your instincts.

Go for it for everyone who grew up in abusive households. Do it for everyone carrying self-doubt around like a bag of stones.

Go for it because you don't want to end up wondering 20 years later why you didn't.

Go for it to strike a blow against the tyranny of reasonable ideas.

Go for it because it's spring and spring is extravagant and fearless.

Go for it.

Go crazy!

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