Better Late Than Never

Later this week, I’ll be traveling to Macomb, IL to finish something I started in 1984.

Way back then in the dark ages of the 1980’s, I was a 24-year old pup, still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. In fact, I had just finished my first year at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. I loved law school, but I knew myself well enough to know that I couldn’t avoid all of the distractions the city of Chicago had to offer. I was there to attend school and study. The Second City had so many other options.

In law school, I was a C student. I loved what I was studying, but I didn’t spend nearly enough time studying it. I thought about transferring to a law school in a smaller city that offered more sanctuary from the real world. What I found was that most law schools had enough C students of their own. They weren’t interested in transferring in other schools’  C students.

I decided my best course of action was to return to Western Illinois University, where I got my undergraduate degree, and earn a master’s degree in political science. The plan called for me to earn good grades and to eventually get into a better law school, preferably in the south.

The plan worked, kind of. I got accepted into a couple of different law schools, but before I could go, I realized that I couldn’t afford to stay in school any longer. I was broke. It was time to leave school behind (at least for a while) and join the real world.

During fall semester 1985, I took the last of my graduate classes and worked on my thesis. School was coming to an end, and I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I met with a recruiter for the Air Force and made the commitment that, if I did not get a job by the end of 1985, I was going to join the military. I was scheduled to take the test to get into Officer Candidate School on January 4, 1986.

My friend Brett was living in St. Louis at the time and was working for State Farm Insurance. He told me they had job openings in their auto insurance claims department, and he encouraged me to apply. I knew nothing about insurance. I really wasn’t interested in working for an insurance company. But I also didn’t want to join the military. So, on December 30, 1985—just two days shy of my self-imposed deadline—I interviewed for a job at State Farm.

In one day, I interviewed with four different people (in four separate interviews), and to my surprise, I was offered a job that same day. I was saved from going into the military (something I now kind of regret), and I was going to work for an insurance company.

Back in Macomb, I turned in my thesis, thinking I would leave for my new job in St. Louis with a master’s degree. The subject matter for the thesis had been approved by the chair of the Political Science Department, but when I turned in the paper, a new chairman had taken over. He did not approve my subject matter and said I’d have to write a new thesis. (In his defense, my thesis subject was more related to criminal justice than political science.)

I didn’t know what to do. All of my hard work had gone to waste, and I was preparing to leave school. The new department chairman told me not to worry. I had seven years to complete the thesis and still earn the degree. That sounded good. I could move to St. Louis, settle into my new job, and then begin work on my new thesis.

That never happened. Once I was away from Macomb and my new job took up most of my time, I largely forgot about the thesis. Years went by, and the only time I thought about the thesis was when my mom would chastise me for spending all the time, energy, and money on graduate school without having anything to show for it (Thanks a lot, Mom.)

Seven years went by in the blink of an eye. Time had run out and I didn’t complete my thesis. I wasn’t concerned. I had moved on. My career was taking off. I had married and started a family. Not completing my master’s degree didn’t bother me much. Of course, that’s not to say it didn’t bother me at all.

In August of last year, not completing graduate school began bothering me more than usual. I didn’t like that I had spent all of that time and money just to walk away without a degree. I thought about returning to school. I had a lot of questions. So, I contacted the Political Science Department at WIU, explained the situation, and asked if it was still possible to complete the master’s degree. As it turned out, it was. In fact, the person I spoke to seemed kind of excited to help me get through the program.

Since last August, I have been working on re-certifying my classes (writing papers to show that my knowledge is up-to-date on the subject matter of each class I took in 1984-85) and researching and writing a thesis (I made sure the subject matter was approved by everyone). Later this week, I’m meeting with three professors from WIU to defend my thesis.

It’s not supposed to take thirty-seven years to complete a master’s degree, but that’s just how it worked out. I’m excited to defend my thesis and excited to earn my master’s degree (assuming the defense goes well). And maybe, just maybe, the voice of my mom that has played over and over again in my head will be quieted. I think she’d be proud.

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