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In a word… (or 1,520 to be exact)

November 8, 2011
by

If you were to look at my resume (or, as it’s called in the world of academia, C.V.) you would see a chain of alphabet soup letters following my name. My insatiable appetite for collecting degrees and certifications is not one of those hidden addictions that only I know about. It is out there for anyone to see.  Satisfying that hunger is limited, for the time being, by my unwillingness to accrue additional student loan debt, since I am currently financing my son’s gateway degree: his B.A. I’m not sure if Zak will follow in my footsteps; although he does show some early signs of the addiction: he has four majors.

I am not oblivious to the warning signals. Perhaps if someone had intervened with me early on, I could have gone to the School-Anon meetings and pledged along with the group, “One day at a time, I will not get high-er education; one day at a time, I will not matriculate.” And when I found myself stuporously wandering around the library stacks of a nearby campus, I could call my sponsor, who would come and gently remove me and take me out for cawfee, (I’m from New York) until the craving passed.

I hope no one is offended by my analogy. I really do not mean to minimize the excruciating road to recovery for alcoholics and drug addicts. But addictive and habitual behaviors come in many forms, some deemed acceptable by society, while others are not. Either way, the person living with the compulsion is suffering.

I could lie and say that my motivation for gathering so many degrees was noble; an admirable hunger for knowledge and the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from the joy of learning.  And while I’m thrilled to report that according to my son those are HIS reasons for having four concentrations of study, in my case, nobility only accounts for a small fraction of my behavior.  The rest, sadly, was fueled (and I use the past tense because I have been on the wagon now for THREE YEARS!) by a deep-seated insecurity and need to prove my value in a way unassociated with the size of my personal student body.

It is not unusual for addictions to germinate and flourish in the fertile ground of insecurity, and I admit that I am being a bit tongue-in-cheek about my school addiction. But I have also struggled with cigarette smoking and compulsive eating and want to be clear that, although for me, humor is essential to get by in this world, the pain that accompanies addiction, is NO laughing matter.

The last and possibly final (one day at a time) certificate program I completed added three more letters to my list. As a Certified College Counselor, (CCC), I am qualified to work at a University as an Admissions Officer and/or to help high school students look for good fit colleges and to navigate the application process, essays and all. I am involved with the latter and, no, there is no guarantee that each kid I work with will get into their first choice school and, NO, I do not write the essay for them.

Yes, I am aware that this particular form of employment may be a way of satisfying my matriculation jones; rather like a methadone program and, quite frankly, I have no problem with that. Others may find it insidious… like a pusher offering the “first taste is free” experience to innocent teens. But I have to hope that, like my son, most of the kids working with college counselors, have healthy motivations for pursuing higher education goals and are not overcompensating for feeling like a failure for not graduating with honors from the “Academy of Weight Loss.” Hence, I am there to help.

In most cases the college essay has to be between 250 and 500 words. That really isn’t much. At this point you’ve read 650 words, edited down from 723 because I didn’t want to bore you to death. This may be happening anyway, and if it is, please don’t tell me. It may trigger a relapse.

The purpose of the essay is to let the admissions officer “hear your voice” and get to know you. These days a typical essay is supposed to be about an event in your life that didn’t kill you, but made you stronger.

The universities want to know that you will be an active contributor to their campus community and not just “sponging around the quad” partying and only taking classes that start at noon on Tuesdays through Thursdays. 

I’ve read more of these essays than you could imagine and it’s difficult not to be affected by the hardships kids are required to write about. Even if you account for the statistical deviations and exaggerations, outliers and out-liars, it is paradoxically heart-breaking and reassuring to read about the resilience of youth.

One of the requirements of the certification program was to write and evaluate sample essays in order to learn our trade. Each student invented fictional applicant personalities, then swapped the faux stories and assessed them for admissibility. We had fun with this assignment and before settling down to serious writing, we spent some time composing purely imaginary essays; ones we would write if we really could write anything we wanted.

EXHIBIT A

I’d like to introduce myself.  My name is Dora and I was a fat kid. Sure I liked to eat my share of junk food, but no more than the next kid. I rode my bike everywhere but I was on medication that made me gain weight and I have the metabolism of a chair. Everyone teased me. Most people thought I was lazy and a loser. I was angry and wanted to prove they were wrong. I tried losing weight by eating only one meal a day. People complimented me on my weight loss. They only thought I was successful because I was thin. That made me angrier. I was the smartest student in my high school, but I was fat, so it didn’t matter.

I spent most of my high school years volunteering at a nearby hospital helping the kids that were waiting for surgery. They were scared and lonely. Happy to have someone closer to their own age to hang out with and play Nintendo, they didn’t care that I was fat.  They got to know who I really was; underneath my fat. I got to know who they really were; underneath their cancer.

I am more than a fat kid.  I am smart, I am funny and I want to be a lawyer and a doctor.  I want to advocate for fat people and medically treat fat people like people and not like fat people.

I am a hard worker and will make a lot of money which I will donate to your university after I have graduated with my pre-med and pre-law degrees.

Please admit me.

There are many flaws in the requirements for the standard college essay and the application process in general.  And because I am already up to 1,120 words (which is way over the typical allotted blog limit), I won’t elaborate. What I will say is the one strength in the application process as a whole is that it is typically blind. If a student does not disclose what they look like in their essay or participate in a face-to-face interview, the committee reviewing a high school senior’s application does not know anything about the student’s appearance.

The result is the rare occasion when people of all sizes are given an equal opportunity for inclusion. After all, a fat 3.8 GPA is the same as a thin 3.8. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if society as a whole borrowed a page from this “blind admissions” approach manual? Can you imagine the diversity of sizes and shapes that would be represented across a myriad industries that are now homogenous?

Of course, what happens once a kid steps on to the college campus for their freshman year in terms of body image and eating disorders is not always quite so “Edenesque” and that’s fodder for yet another blog, but in the meantime let me leave you with this image:

It’s a beautiful spring day and you get home from school and rush to the mailbox. There, squished between the junk mail and utility bills, is a FAT envelope from your first choice school. You feel a rush of excitement come over you because in this alternate reality, FAT is GOOD. A FAT envelope = ACCEPTANCE. You rip it open and see the word, “Congratulations…” Your arms shoot above your head and you proceed to do a victory lap up the driveway to your front door! You feel accepted and included; appreciated and valued sight unseen for what you wrote and NOT what you look like. You are high as a kite and it feels amazing…

Uh oh… I have to make a phone call.

One day at a time.

Warmly,
Dr. Deah Schwartz, B.A., M.A., M.S., Ed. D., CTRS, RTC, CCC

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 10:33 am

    I totally get this: overcompensation due to low self-esteem. If I hadn’t gotten my girlfriend pregnant in college, I might be collecting my own alphabet soup right now as well. Instead, I’ve focused on writing and search for acceptance through that venue.

    I think it’s great that you’re helping high schoolers through this process, and you can even get a glimpse of body image issues and lend a helping hand if you see them. More positive role models are needed in every corner of our society, but among young adults in particular. Great post, Deah!

    Peace,
    Shannon

  2. Mulberry permalink
    November 8, 2011 3:16 pm

    I have to admit, I am rather jealous here. Not of the brain part, but of the energy part. Where in blazes do people get the energy to study four majors, or to raise kids and hold a full-time job? Yet clearly millions of people do such things, so the problem is with me.
    This post also makes me sad, in the sense of you’ve done all this “despite being fat”, or the kids with cancer knowing who you were, “underneath the fat”. I can certainly understand what prompts such statements, but it still makes me cringe that so many people think of even a modest amount of fat as some disgusting disfigurement. I’m not saying you in particular think so, just that these attitudes are so ingrained in all of us and are hard to uproot.

  3. November 8, 2011 3:34 pm

    Mulberry, I can not tell you how much I appreciate this honest and heartfelt comment. The fact that these attitudes are so ingrained has made my personal journey to exorcise those internalized beliefs so difficult. the energy thing…I think some of that is how we come into the world with our own unique wiring. Your comment reminded me that we are all subject to comparisons, whether it be about our bodies or energy level or perceived accomplishments and it is in the comparisons that we often (myself included) lose track of our self-acceptance AND knowing how unique each person is.
    Thanks so much for writing!

  4. November 8, 2011 11:24 pm

    I have a school addiction too. My majors are English Lit, History, Sociology, Women’s Studies, Social Work and Counselling. And I plan to feed my addiction by enrolling in something new next year.

    Bri King BA, Cert Counselling, BSW, Grad Dip Social Science, M. Counselling, AASW, ACA, VFC.

    (Also certified mediator, trainer with the Victoria Step Family Association and a bunch of other non university courses).

    It really is an addiction.

    • November 8, 2011 11:38 pm

      😀 abcdefg here I go to get another degree…(sing to the tune of the alphabet song with feeling! wow, Bri, wanna go to the library?

  5. November 9, 2011 1:29 am

    I have alphabets after my name, and I’m proud of them, because I’ve worked so, so, SO hard to get ’em … my brain’s always been my saving grace for me, both before and after my autism diagnosis. It’s always been what I’ve held up to show how Special I am … I no longer think my brain is my only redeeming feature, but it always seems to be one or the other, especially with women. I know girls who graduated law school and got married, and now they not only don’t use their post-nomials, but they don’t even want a job. Women especially (though obviously some men, too) need to learn that brains and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive.

    If I were feeling pretentious, I could sign my name:
    Dr. Cara LastName, B.A., Esq.

    • November 9, 2011 8:54 am

      Thank you Counselor! 😀 And extra credits for using the word post-nomials!!! You rule!

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