BLOG #26, SERIES 7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE WOUND THAT NEVER EVER HEALS
June 29, 2016
Today’s blog is one that has been percolating on a back burner of my mind since before I started these weekly blogs seven years ago. I think it is safe to say that this particular blog has to do with a topic so seismic that readers will never be the same after they digest it.
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Thirty-six years ago it was, deep in the heart of Texas, when I was asked to take on a new challenge: Develop, advertise, and run an Adult Degree Program. When I accepted, I had no idea that it would be so complex that it would take me over a year to structure it and get it to full steam. Reason being that the process of awarding experiential college credit to adults of all ages for knowledge and skills gained outside the traditional classroom ended up taking me into uncharted waters. The challenge: take an adult in his/her 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, and develop procedures and instruments that would take into consideration the individual lifetime trajectory of each one, and somehow, out of all those separate life stories, shorten each one’s distance to a college degree. Talk about a daunting challenge!
Complicating it no little was the fact that back then the very concept of experiential credit was still in its infancy—it was something institutions of higher learning had never tackled before. There were mighty few textbooks or guides that would explain to someone like me how to develop and run such a program. Totally different from the usual choreography of eighteen-year-olds who’d been studying in elementary and secondary schools for twelve years who’d come to us with a full head of steam, expecting us to guide them through four years of more of the same. Adults, who had been out of education for X number of years, and who had long lost whatever forward momentum educationally they’d ever had, were an entirely new species to me. How in the world could I jump-start them?
Finally, after advertising all across North America, our first batch of candidates arrived, by car and by air, to our campus in Johnson County, Texas. Arrived, loaded down with insecurities and frustrations, uncertain as to why they’d spent so much of their hard-earned money in a cause that was so new they’d be the first group of people to try it out and see if it would work. Many of them older than their Director—me.
Never can I forget the sight of them uncertainly edging into the then college—now university—board room on the third floor of Heritage Hall (the highest point in the county), with unparalleled views of the countryside from the large windows. Some, out of breath from climbing three flights of stairs, were the last to file in, look around at a room full of strangers and find a seat around the long central table. Some two dozen of them finally sat down, looked around expectantly for their shepherd, and waited—for what would come next.
Nothing in life had prepared me for this confrontation. Rarely, if ever, had I felt so insecure, vulnerable, or unprepared. What did all those quizzical faces want of me? I wouldn’t learn that day—indeed, I’d still be learning four years later. By then, I’d discovered that there were no norms in any of these groups. About the closest thing to a norm might have been the word, “Desperation” – almost all of them, after years of struggle in the real world, had discovered that in their job markets, there were two chains of command: the de-jure and the de-facto. On letterhead, someone was in charge of everything, and below, in descending order of authority, were what we tend to call “the pecking order.” That’s the de-jure chain of command. But then we have the de-facto chain of command: In reality, a lowly secretary may be the power behind the throne and is, in effect, running everything.
But it is small compensation when a de-facto employee knows s/he is the most important person in the entire institution/company, when nobody else recognizes the fact. The reality, almost everywhere, is that regardless of the de-facto factor, the person who has that piece of paper [diploma] is awarded the position and the salary. And this was one of the principal reasons they showed up in Southwestern’s board room. They were there to get that precious piece of paper that almost single-handedly opens doors into the good life.
They were also there, in part, because they were insecure and crippled by feelings of low self-worth. For so long had they been devalued position-wise, compensation-wise, and praise-wise, that most of them had come to believe that they, in truth, were pigeon-holed right: they really were inferior to their degreed fellow-workers. But they hoped that I, somehow, could change that. Significantly, it was heart-warming to see how many of these students received promotions and salary increases even before they completed their Adult Degree, thus validating their forward progress.
As for me, somehow, some way, I had to find a way to become a miracle worker—or I might just as well close shop and go back to coasting in the comfort zone of deep and predictable academic ruts.
Was there a miracle tool somewhere?
And where in the next two weeks would I stumble on the “wound that never ever heals”?
Stay tuned; we’ll pick up right here after July’s book of the month.