By Pete Reinwald
It’s all about the journey.
That’s what I tell my kids about their college education. They roll their eyes. But that’s how I see college, and that’s how I see my midcareer graduate-school experience. I received my master’s degree about five years ago, yet the journey continues. And it still brings rewards.
I embarked several years ago on a master’s degree in public service management at DePaul University. I wanted an advanced degree that would complement my journalism background and provide career flexibility. More than anything, I wanted a meaningful experience.
For me, it really wasn’t about the money. You’re rolling your eyes. But, really, I’m weird that way.
Sure, it was expensive. But in many ways, I’ve already recouped the costs through my experiences, friendships, connections, opportunities and discoveries.
Experiences. My degree program included a strong study-abroad component. So I went on a 10-day trip to Chiapas, Mexico, where our class met with government and nonprofit leaders to learn about the plight of the indigenous people in Mexico’s poorest state. We visited some of those Mayan descendants. We ate with them. We slept among them. We laughed with them. We connected with them and with one another. I emerged with a deeper understanding of the way in which U.S. policy affects so many abroad. I emerged with a lasting experience.
Friendships. I maintain that college isn’t for everybody, especially as costs soar and as the global economy morphs. When I finished high school, I wasn’t sure college was for me, which explains why it took me 11 years, and six higher-education institutions, to earn a bachelor’s degree. Having lacked a traditional undergraduate experience, I came away from my graduate-school experience with far more meaningful friendships. Some I count among my best friends. We share a bond of public service and greater good. We go out for a beer. We baby-sit each other’s pets. We conspire to change the world.
Connections. I’ve always found myself uncomfortable with forced connections, including networking events. My graduate-school experience gave me professional connections that emerged naturally. While in the graduate program, I sought freelance-writing work. A fellow student put me in touch with her colleague, a magazine editor at a nonprofit organization with whom I established a working relationship. The editor and I remain connected and friends. And more connections followed.
Opportunities. After graduation, the director of the graduate program asked me if I’d be interested in teaching a writing course. I pounced. Although I could never survive on the income of the writing course, professionally speaking, I love it as much as anything I’ve done. When I see students improve their writing, I see accomplishment and victory in their eyes. Then I understand what’s in it for the person who volunteers to coach a soccer or baseball team. When a player scores a goal or hits a home run, the coach beams for the player, who had connected with the coach. Therein we find the purpose and compensation.
Discoveries. As a journalist, I ask questions. As a student, I sought the next inspiration. My first college inspiration came at age 26, when I took my first university-level course, world geography. When University of South Florida professor Harry Schaleman pointed to his big map, I saw not words and colors. I saw lives and rivers. Professor Schaleman brought the world to life and my life to the world: I majored in geography. Twenty years later, I sought that inspiration again. The journalist in me asked: What are you waiting for? So I enrolled in the DePaul program. One course and discovery led to another, and I built an intense interest in the environment and cultural sustainability. I wrote my capstone project on the emergence of ecovillages, why they exist, how they operate and who lives in them. Now I can see myself and my wife living in one. And now she’s rolling her eyes.
(Pete Reinwald is deputy editor for the Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation, which focuses on news related to Chicago-based innovation and entrepreneurship)