My family moved a lot when I was growing up. I once counted that from the first grade through high school I had attended 12 different schools.
This many moves creates a sense that all things are temporary. Wherever we lived, things were different, and yet things were the same. My family was the same. People had different faces and different names but were essentially the same as the people in the last place I lived. Some were nice and friendly. Some were shy and reserved. One or two wanted to be my friend. And one or two liked making fun of the “new kid.”
I didn’t really give a whole lot of thought to the community I lived in. I tried to be as quiet as possible and blend in. I wanted to leave a small footprint. This approach was fine until my Senior Year in college.
I started college working towards a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. The career seemed to suit me. I was complimented on my writing skills in High School. I enjoyed writing. And I could be the objective observer of the society I lived in; wiring about other people’s lives. I had a fantasy of writing humorous stories. I wanted to use dialect and humor like Mark Twain and to make poignant observations about the world around me.
I didn’t understand that before I got to Mark Twain, I first had to write objective, bland Who, What, Where, How and maybe Why stories in upside down pyramid order without embellishment. No one got a by-line back then unless they were writing editorials. Or were famous.
By the end of my second year, my grades were telling me that I should give up getting a degree in journalism. I went, instead, toward a degree in Psychology, where I had strong grades and a strong interest.
By the end of my third year in undergraduate school (technically my fourth, since I waited too long to change majors), I realized that I was going to have to go to graduate school if I wanted to earn a living in the field of Psychology.
I had one of my infrequent conversations with my advisor. This was maybe my second of two trips to the advisor during my five years getting my B.S. I wanted to discuss what I could do or where I should go in order to work in the field. There was an Applied Master’s Degree in Psychology at the University, but they only accepted six students a year, and they had a lot of applicants.
“What can I do for a back-up plan?” I asked, remembering all the “C’s” I had settled for earlier in school. I was going to apply, I just realized the chances were getting pretty slim for me to get into the psychology program.
She suggested I look into getting a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW).
My mom did a good job of raising my sister and I to be fiercely independent. This can be a good trait a lot of the time. But sometimes, it is not so good. For me, being independent means that I try to do everything I can by myself. If a problem comes my way, I handle it myself. Usually I’m successful. Sometimes I’m not. Either way, I survive it. This is why I only met with my advisor twice in five years. It is also why I have trouble asking for help. And sometimes this means that I have trouble asking all of the right questions. When I come home from an important meeting or from the doctor’s office, Wife always has a dozen really good questions that I should have asked but didn’t.
My tendency to not ask enough questions led me to take a long hike across campus to meet with the director of the Sociology Department.
To save you, the reader, the same embarrassment I experienced on that day, I’ll explain that Sociology and Social Work are two very different fields. One studies societies of people. The other is a mental health practitioner who helps people through therapy and by connecting them with social resources, such as family, organizations, or governmental agencies.
I didn’t hear the Sociology professor laughing as I left the building, so maybe this is a common error.
Another long hike across campus and I found myself in the right building, talking to someone about careers in Social Work. I applied for the program, thinking it was my fallback plan. The Psychology program accepted six applicants a year. The Social Work program accepted 80. 80 versus 6! Getting into the MSW program was a cinch. Looked like I was going to have to settle for the title of Social Worker. Nothing wrong with that.
But, I could still dream of the Psychology degree.
I got married, graduated with my B.S., and started working in the warehouse at W.W. Grainger to pay the bills. Wife and I waited to hear from one school or the other to see if I was going to graduate school, or if I should try to make a career out of Grainger.
Early Summer came, and I got my first letter with the University’s letterhead. The outside of the envelope said, “School of Social Work.” Hmmm. I wanted to hear from the Psychology program, first, so I’d know how to respond to the MSW program. As I opened the envelope, I was wondering if I could accept, and then not go should the Psychology program accept me.
I read the letter in amazement. I was NOT accepted! The school offered its regrets but said that I had no history of community service. I had never advocated for others.
They were right, of course. I had no sense of “community” outside of my family. I’d never spent any significant time living in a community, growing roots, connecting with others. Being a part of the community beyond my family and a couple of friends was foreign to me.
That accusation. Those words in the letter. They have stuck with me throughout the rest of my life. They have motivated me to give up the life of an island and to participate in my world. I began trying to be a part of a community larger than I was soon after graduating with my M.A. in Psychology in 1977 (fortunately, and against all odds, I was accepted into the Terminal MA Psychology program). I have belonged to profession-related organizations, church boards, chamber of commerce, and city council. I have gone beyond membership and become part of the leadership.
I have learned about the work it takes to be involved in the community. But the most important thing I have learned is that life is about participation, and not observation. It takes time and energy to move outside of my small circle of family and friends. And as much work as it might take, working within the greater community provides me with a sense of permanence, ownership and belonging. It fills me with the sense that my presence has made a difference. These are true blessings that fulfill me.