Returning to the Classroom: Lessons from a Past Graduate

by February 25, 2014
filed under Life

Photo Back in the Classroom by Alexis Marie Chute (1 of 1)When I graduated from university with my undergrad degree in fine art in 2007 I didn’t foresee myself ever going back to school. I actually celebrated the fact that I would never sit on another uncomfortable classroom chair for hours at a time or labor over assignments that I cared little for or failed to see the relevancy amidst the pulsating activity of the real world. I did not plan to further my education, but a lot happened in the seven years after tossing my commencement hat in the air and cheering along with my peers.

When I reflect back on my undergrad days I chuckle. I took a lot of wrong turns in course planning, taking classes to fill requirements then zoning out during lectures wondering what I was doing there. Somehow I ended up in a philosophy class with a textbook of numerical calculations that did not compute with my right-brain thinking. I also took an anthropology class that necessitated endless Ice Caps to keep my eyes open – although I did retain some nearly useless pieces of information. The word ‘anthropithecus’, an African ape that exhibits humanlike mannerisms, for example, still remains a part of my 2014 vocabulary.

I did discover many courses that I loved in my four years at University; mainly history classes on photography, Canadian Art and design. Yet despite my enjoyment of their material, my undergrad mentality was to pull all-nighters before exams. I would write and rewrite my notes until the words tattooed themselves on my brain, staying up with coffee and then walking the 25 minutes to school for an 8 am exam. The teacher would say, “begin,” and I would regurgitate every piece of information I could onto the blank pages, fueled by the wild adrenaline of exhaustion, only to leave the room to forget nearly everything.

Don’t get me wrong – I was a good student and I received average and sometimes above average grades. Yet I failed to see the big picture back then. I was still discovering who I was in the margins of student life. Some people know instinctively who they are destined to be and what their contributions will look like, but for the rest of us these answers are shifting shadows through the arc of the day, changing frequently while gradually being revealed.

In the time since graduating with my bachelor’s degree, a lot has changed in my life. I am now married and have two little kids that climb my arms and legs like a jungle gym, and I work primarily from home. My messy arrangement of balancing motherhood and career aspirations on the same time clock suits me fine most days. Unlike some of the peers I graduated with, I am still working in the career that I went to school for as an undergrad, and as a multi-medium artist and writer and I have found a moderate amount of success. Thus, it was strange one night when an urge crept over me to sit on a hard wood chair and listen to a lecture. When I pondered this desire, I concluded that I did in fact want to go back to school.

When this urge arrived, my husband was in his first semester of his masters program in educational administration through distance learning at Arizona State University. Each time a brown box of textbooks arrived at our front door from Amazon or the university bookstore, my fingers itched to crack the firm spine of a textbook myself and stain my fingertips pink and yellow with the highlighters I used to mark up the clean smooth pages.

Receiving my masters of fine art would be good for my career I reasoned, and would help me get a better paying job at an art institution. On a less practical level, I craved the focused intensity of study and the challenge of gaining knowledge in my area of expertise. There were aspects of my professional life that I felt lacked the vocabulary and sophistication that I knew would come from furthering my education.

When I submitted my application for masters programs, I paused and stared at my undergraduate transcripts. I hadn’t anticipated the need to revisit the letter grades that had long been forgotten. They were mostly B+’s, a handful of A-‘s, a few A’s, a few C’s. When an acceptance letter eventually came in the mail for a creative writing graduate program, I thought to myself, “what on earth are you doing?” but in the end, excitement and a hunger to learn overcame any reservations and I paid the tuition. There was no going back.

What I have discovered so far in my first two semesters of grad school is that everything has changed – not with the education system, although I am doing a very interesting low-residency program from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA – but it is me that has shifted perspective. Everything about my mentality towards school is different. Instead of cramming for the grade, I am cramming for knowledge. This time my butt is in the classroom chair because I want it there, not due to parental pressure or societal expectation. I am eager to develop myself and take my work to a deeper level. My life experiences have given me a story to tell and a taste of what I hope will be a fulfilling career. The discipline to read the textbooks for understanding is no longer a chore and I am humorously eager to write papers that matter to my profession.

Often my friends wonder aloud at my schedule. Kids. Husband. Work. School. The easiest way for me to juggle it all is by not thinking about it for too long, for when I do it’s easy to slip into hyperventilation. Yet I love every moment. I don’t look back on my earlier self, the undergraduate version of me, with distain or contempt. I needed that time in my life to experiment and make mistakes, but I cannot express how amazing it feels now to care about what I am learning and be in a community of like-minded people.

This time around I am asking myself different questions. Instead of, “who am I and what do I want to be?” I challenge myself with, “how far can I go in pursuing my dreams? What is the next level? How am I going to get there?” I am developing what has become a catch phrase: ‘The lifelong love of learning.’

I do have a confession to make; I lied earlier. When I wrote that I tossed my commencement hat in the air at my first university graduation that was not the truth. I pretended to throw my hat – for the sole reason I wanted to keep it as a souvenir of my accomplishments – but now I wonder if I subconsciously knew I was not done with education. As I study my passions I get that strange feeling of being in exactly the right place at the right time. Right back in school. The whole process is enriching, professional and personally, and even once I graduate in 2015 I’m convinced this love of learning will endure.

I doubt I’ll toss my hat at this commencement either.

Alexis Marie Chute is an artist, photographer and writer. You can find her at and

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