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Interview with College Student X, Part 1: Large university versus small, public versus private

March 21, 2010

Written by keito.

Student X, age 29, received two Bachelors of Science degrees in different fields.  The first, a B.S. in Marine Biology, came from a small, rural private school, while the second, a B.S. in Environmental Studies, was from a public university in a large, urban setting.  She agreed to do an anonymous chat-interview with keito for the March 2010 Higher Education issue of The Talking Twenties.

Keito: So, why choose two bachelor’s degrees?

Student X: Well my first undergraduate degree was very specialized, which was something my advisor and the department heads encouraged with all the students.  Only we ended up being too specialized and I wasn’t able to find work in my field.  Actually, no one I graduated with was able to find work in their field within the first 4 years, other than a part-time position or unpaid internship.  So after a few years of working fast food/bakery positions I went back to school and got a second undergraduate degree in something that was more marketable and just as enjoyable for me.

To give you an idea — my specialty was the captive breeding of clownfish, with an emphasis on Ocellaris Clownfish.  Another person from my class focused specifically on blue sharks.

K: Your first degree was from a small, private university in a remote area, and your second was from a very large public university.  How did the experience with your second degree differ?

X: My second degree was more hands on — I did fieldwork that was more useful to the major, i.e. learning about ecosystems hands-on, identifying animals and plants that exist in these environments.  While I did fieldwork for the first degree it was mostly self-serving for the department.  We had a research trip to the freshwater springs system of Florida to study Florida manatees.  While the research experience was wonderful to have, it was completely unrelated to all other courses we were required to take and was more an excuse to take a trip to Florida on the students’ and department’s money.

Also, with the second degree, I had options for what classes I wanted to take.  With the smaller school we were given a list of the mandated classes and when we could take them. You pretty much had only one option each semester and the rest were all specific classes with no other options.

K: So you felt like the private school’s field research was more flash and less substance?

X: I did.  You were required to take these certain classes, such as Field Biology, in which the curriculum was completely up in the air until the professor decided where we would be taking a week long research trip…then the rest of the class was thrown together around that.  We read a book.  And then about 50% of the course grade was based on the notes you took in the field.

K: Even though the field research at the public university, where you received your Environmental Studies degree, was more localized, you said it was more useful to you. The departments you were in in both schools were also small. Do you think the public university made better use of its limited size and funding, then?

X: Yes, but not only that, the professors there seemed much more personally involved in the classes.  This was something they really loved doing, not an attempt to milk the system for all it was worth.

K: Do you think you would have attempted a second Bachelor’s and a career change if there wasn’t a local, public university option available?

X: Probably not.  I am still paying off my student loans from the first degree, and have possibly another 5 years to go.  I really wouldn’t have been able to afford to go away to school or to another private school.

K: You worked while attending school both times. How did that affect your “college experience”?

X: It kept me busy.  Very busy.  With the first degree at the private school, I actually still had a lot of free time.  Because the school was small, there were very few fellowships and student employment opportunities on campus, and we were rather in the middle of nowhere — the wilds of the forested and mountainous central PA to be exact.  We had to wheel and deal to get just 6 hours a week.  There were long waiting lists just for a three-hour-a-week position cleaning floors in our one and only cafe/deli on campus.

At the public university, at this point I had a car and there was no dearth of businesses in a short driving distance.  For a short time I was able to go to school full time and work full time, and eventually had to change to part time hours, and then quit to finish.

K: You commuted for your second degree, but lived on-campus for the first. Were there any advantages to the isolation of your first campus?

X: You got to know your neighbors quite well, and there was a bit more of a sense of community.  However, it also meant that every person you couldn’t stand or creeped you out was also your next-door neighbor.  And honestly, there was probably more drug and alcohol issues at the private school because it was isolated. And any medical emergencies were also an issue as you were discouraged from calling 911 and the nearest hospital was 30 minutes away.

K: Ouch. My next question was going to be if you thought you could have been as successful at adjusting to college life if you had started out at the large university.

X: That’s a good question.  On the one hand the private school was far too isolated for me in the end — it seemed very much like a smaller high school-sphere where there were those cliques and a very sheltered atmosphere, not a “real world” sense of college life, or life in general.  But it was also much easier to make friends.  Part of that could have been due to my living in a very crowded dorm on campus.

The public school offered more options, more diversity.  Heck, we had a drag show on campus!  My private school would have pitched a fit if they even thought a man wore makeup to class! They were not too open to creative and alternative personalities.

K: So what kind of opportunities have come out of your second degree that you didn’t get from the first?

X: Well first and foremost, I was able to get letters of recommendation.  A very useful thing for a graduate!  The private school was extremely unresponsive and unprofessional even with their letters.  Also, as the public school was local, I have the continued opportunity to interact with some of my professors.  I have run into a number of them through my employment, so there were useful contacts made.  And a number of my current co-workers had the same professors I did at the public school.

K: Having a job in your field with your new degree must be a real bonus, too, to say the least!

X: IT IS. And sadly, I still know people who graduated from my first school (private school) who are still trying to get jobs in their fields. One in particular had a job at first where she had a mandatory unpaid 6-month vacation, then she had a part time job in her field for a few years and is now finally full-time. Several others are still floating with temp agencies.

“Part 2: Life in returning ed,” will be released on Sunday, March 28th.

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