The Importance of Beer in Higher Education (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy College)

I completed my undergraduate college work from 2002-2006, with a family and jobs and other distractions. I’m glad I did it, more glad that I’m not doing it now. This is a speech I gave at the party my family threw for me, nine years ago.

I made an amazing discovery during college: schoolwork is far more enjoyable when accompanied by beer. I’m convinced this is an essential part of the “college experience” – peer pressure has nothing to do with it. When I wrote this I tried to think of the most important things I learned in school, bored myself with internal rates of return and software development models… It all comes back to beer, anyway.

Chris GraduationAs I graduate from college I have a lot to celebrate, and much to be thankful for. I think back four years and remember how long the road looked at the time, how distant this goal seemed. The last two months have been the most difficult – thanks especially to those I’ve leaned on  during this time.

I’ve run six marathons. College has been similar: the early euphoria, the middle settling in, and the last few miles that end up defining the whole race.  Every time, I dream that I’m late to the start line – everyone else is on their way and I’m still parking the car. Here’s another similarity between running and my college career: in this case I was 15 years late starting.

It’s hard to believe I didn’t get serious about my education until I was 33. That’s a long “year or two after high school to get my act together.” Why did I wait? Because I was afraid of failing. Exactly four years ago I had two 20-page essays to write, for an independent study course on “The Novel,” a trial-run I’d worked on for almost a year. I couldn’t bring myself to commit to the work. What if I was terrible? The late Crystal Scriber, my Empire State College mentor, lit a fuse by setting a deadline of December 31st. For six days, starting the day after Christmas, I camped out in the Hamilton College library, researching and writing. I had a blast. I knew before I even saw my grade it was time to get back to school.

I’d been out of work, and my CV was unimpressive: a handful of computer certifications and a failed stage lighting business. I asked Susan, “What if I started college full time?” She didn’t hesitate. We refinanced the house and got some angel assistance along the way (thanks to Steve and Grace Wu, Doug and Patti Robinson, Mark and Lisa Smith, and Mike Larson for providing financial and moral support – I might still be years away from a four-year degree if not for their help.)

I think I’m the first graduate of the first freshman class at SUNYIT. I was accepted as a freshman, with a handful of transfer credits from Empire State College. I attended my first class on campus the summer before the official inaugural class arrived. At my orientation the college president thought he was addressing the actual freshman class, which had been scheduled for a special address of its own. There we stood – a bunch of jaded third-year students and me, reciting “The best is none too good for me!” and “I will keep a straight-A average for the next four years!” Little did President Somerville know that just one person in the audience was from his target group; also, I achieved the goal.

I’m happy and amazed at the success I’ve had in school, but it belongs equally to my partner. When one person in a couple undertakes a project, they both do the work. Susan has been instrumental in this success. She’ll tell you she never intended to make dinners or clean the house (I convinced her to marry me by making those part of the package.) For the past four years she’s done both, and has also been proofreader, cheerleader, and drill sergeant. Especially memorable was an ambulance ride to the hospital during finals week, sophomore year. (I wasn’t positive we wouldn’t do it again this time.) Susan’s encouragement and support, more than anything I did, brought about today’s result. During my first year, a three year-old Sarah napped under my desk as I did homework during the day. Every once in a while she’d ask as I ran out the door, “Why do you still have to go to school?” “Because your mother won’t let me quit.”

I once wrote that only your parents would ever cheer when you played a carrot in the school play – that kind of unconditional boosterism is a gift parents give to their children, and if you’re lucky it continues throughout life. Thanks to my Mom, and also my Aunt and Uncle, for believing I could do this long before I did, and for saying so.

After all of my marathons I ask two questions, and they seem applicable today as well: what’s next, and where’s the beer?

16 December 2006