This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on May 23, 2004.
I greeted the bank teller and handed her a couple of checks to cash. As she processed
them she glanced at my Cal State Los Angeles tee shirt and asked me if I had been a
student there. I told her I graduated from Cal State Northridge, it is my son who attends
Cal State Los Angeles.
She looked to be in her early twenties and told me she had a year to go and was finding
it difficult to finish college. I felt compelled to share my story, briefly, in the time it took to
process the checks. I told her it took me twenty years to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in
Psychology; a process that is supposed to take four years.
An adjacent teller overheard the conversation and looked at us. We all smiled. Twenty
years? Both the 20-something tellers realized that it took the length of their lifetime for
me to earn a four-year degree. No wonder we all smiled.
I told her I never regretted my twenty-year struggle to earn a college degree. I tried to
think of ways I could encourage her to continue her education so I quickly listed the
advantages: I earn more money now, I can answer “degree required” ads in the
and – most importantly - now that I have it, it’s mine forever.
She seemed interested in my story and told me she had gotten as far as her senior
year. She was taking some time off and was finding if difficult to go back, to which
I replied, “go back.” Every time I quit, and there were many, it was much more difficult to
start again. By the time I finally earned my degree, I was older than many of my
I got the feeling the young teller enjoyed her job and liked getting paid for her efforts. It
gets very tiresome to sit in a drowsy classroom hour after hour, taking notes and
regurgitating facts back on a Scan-tron form. At the end of a semester of hard work
there is a grade on a piece of paper - it can’t be cashed at the bank.
If you throw in a car, an apartment and the high cost of tuition, spending time and
money on college just doesn’t seem important. College is the ultimate in deferred
gratification and the benefits sit on the far edge of a youthful horizon.
Going to college enriched my life. I learned to think, to reason and to argue a point.
Along with learning how to use my brain, I learned to wait patiently in long lines and
to satisfy petty bureaucratic requirements. In exchange, I lived in the world of ideas and
thought, literature and theories. Overcoming my strong inclination to balk at the
bureaucracy for the sake of learning taught me to take the bad with the good and
prepared me for the real world.
As I left the bank I wondered if I said too much or sounded too preachy to the young
woman with one-more-year-to-go. I hope it won’t stretch to twenty. I’d like to think that
my words of encouragement will help her re-enroll and stick it out. I hope she will
run the last mile, collect her diploma and take great pride in her accomplishment.
Every year when graduation season approaches I thrill once again to the stirring strains
of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. No other music evokes the vision of caps and
gowns, proud parents and eager young graduates, sweating under the hot sun or in a
crowded gymnasium. Pride in accomplishment fills the air along with the music, and
graduates of all ages bask in their gratification, no matter how long deferred.
Graduation day is more hard won for some people than others. But every graduate
deserves that quick moment when her name is announced, several dignitaries shake
her hand and she walks off the stage with a college degree that will be hers forever.
Kathleen Vallee Stein