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Higher Education Has Its Own Set of Nightmares 

By Tom McGowan 

There is north and south, and south it was in the long run. I left New York City and moved to Georgia to start life in a smaller and warmer town to get my life under way. Atlanta was smaller then, and it is warmer, perhaps a bit too warm now.

After moving here, I got a master’s degree in industrial management at Georgia Tech while also working at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. At that time, the school had a “petition to graduate” system. Until you had an audience with the registrar you would not know how many courses you might have remaining or when you would actually graduate. Nothing like petitioning to graduate to give you a sense of the uncertainty of the world and the realization that you are not fully in control. Georgia Tech students who have worked for me over the years sometimes had to take one or two more courses than expected. One student had to take a Fortran programming language course in the mechanical engineering school even though he had already taken one in the electrical engineering school!

I thought I was older and wiser than my younger classmates, so I did not have much to do with them. Part of the “wiser” was talking my professors into letting me do self-study courses. This aided me greatly with scheduling, as I was working full time and going to school part time, unlike the rest of the class. I was finishing my third course and had a fourth lined up. Hoping to impart wisdom to a younger student, I mentioned this. “I thought the limit was two?” he asked me. That got my attention. I asked how he knew this. He said, “From the thick course syllabus.” I asked where he got it. He said, “At orientation.” Orientation was two days; I had skipped the second day and gone back to work. Since then, I had been flying blind for three years! Due to major changes in the market and internal reorganizations, at that point I wanted to leave the GT Research Institute and work at for-profit firms. Adding a quarter or two to my exit plan was not on my schedule.

So it was time for damage control. A certain coordinator oversaw such things, and I presented her with my petition paperwork and filled her in on the issue. A total of five professors had to vote on my case – either thumbs up or thumbs down.

On the last day of registration for my final quarter – the last day to get it all straightened out – the Coordinator had an endless string of undergrads lined up at her door. She had skillfully procrastinated (I wondered if she had a PhD in procrastination) for two weeks without resolving my fate. Seizing the moment, I slipped through the side door of her big office and slid into a chair. As soon as she finished speaking with the student she had been “coordinating,” she turned to me, knowing full well why I was there. She then made calls to the five professors who held my fate in their hands got the votes tallied (I, being older and wiser, had talked to all five about the issue to raise my chances of success), Mercifully, she told me I was good for the third and fourth self-study courses.

Yes, I escaped from Georgia Tech and got out on time. But the rest of the story is like that of all too many Georgia Tech undergrads. For months after I graduated, I had the occasional nightmare that I had forgotten to do something…like take a test…or show up for a course…or that the final exam was written in Greek. But slowly my paranoia faded, banished by the reality that the sheepskin was indeed in my hands, and that my petitioning days were done.

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