Survive College by Being Flexible

CSUN Graduation 1985by Matthew Arnold Stern

The following is a summary of a presentation I gave to the AVID college preparation class at Serrano Intermediate School in Lake Forest, California in January 2006. You can see pictures from my college graduation on Flickr.

In today’s job market, a college degree has become a minimum requirement for a good career. For example, I have a very good friend who is bright and great at his work, but he had a hard time for many years finding a permanent full-time job. He would find steady contract work, but as a family man, he wanted a job with stability and benefits. He finally found that job not too long ago with a leading technology company in Orange County. What made the difference for him was when he went back to school and earned his bachelor’s degree.

This why I think it’s great that you’re thinking about college in junior high school. You may have already picked out your university and major. I’m normally a stickler for making a plan and sticking with it, but I have also learned the importance of being flexible. You may find that your circumstances have changed, and you may need to change your plans with them. That’s what happened in my college career.

A Dream Changed

Just like you, I had my college picked out when I was in junior high. I wanted to go to UCLA. I thought it was a great school, it was close to where I lived in the San Fernando Valley, and it would all fulfill my mom’s dream. She went to UCLA for two years until her dad got sick, and she quit to go to work to support her family. I had hoped to accomplish something my mom wasn’t able to do.

I did very well in junior high and high school. I got a 4.00 GPA in high school, did well on my SATs, and got accepted to UCLA. The dream came true.

Then, in my second week of classes, my mom had a stroke. This was a stroke that left her paralyzed for the rest of her life. She was unable to work. I was working at a Carl’s Jr. at the time, and suddenly, that job became a primary source of income.

I could have done what my mom did and quit school to work full time. It wasn’t an option for me, because I knew that my ability to provide for my family depended on a college education, and that it would be hard to go back to school after leaving it. It also wasn’t an option for my mom. If her illness forced me to leave school just as her dad’s did to her, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself.

I realized that I had to make changes in how I approached college. I had to become a master of time management, to be flexible in my college plans, and to start my career while I was in school.

The Importance of Time Management

As Serrano students, you are fortunate that your school teaches you about time management now. Time management skills will save you when you’re in college. You may find them to be critical now, especially if you have after-school sports and activities.

Here’s how I used time management while I was in college: At the start of the semester, I put together a master schedule. I put together a calendar and blocked out time in order of priority.

  • Work was my first priority. My family depended on my job, and I also had to commit to my employer that I would work certain shifts.
  • Classes were the second priority. I scheduled classes around my work time. I took 12 units, which were the minimum in order to be considered a full-time student.
  • Study time was third. The rule of thumb I learned was to schedule two hours to study for every hour of class time. I fit in study time by taking the bus and doing my studying there. With L.A. traffic, I had plenty of time to study.
  • Family responsibilities came next. I had to schedule time to take care of housework, help my mom, pay the bills, and so forth. I blocked out the time to reduce interruptions later on.
  • The last thing I scheduled, but not the least important thing, was time for myself. With the demanding schedule I had, I needed some downtime to keep from burning out. So, I did go to football games. (I even saw UCLA defeat USC once.)

The Importance of Flexibility

After two years of UCLA, there was a change in the political environment that led to cuts in education. Financial aid shrunk, and tuition rose. I could no longer afford to go to UCLA. So, I decided I would finish my college education at California State University Northridge (CSUN). My mom wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t finish at UCLA as long as I finished college somewhere.

My switch to CSUN had a number of benefits. CSUN had night classes, so I could take better paying jobs during the day. The school was closer to home, so I didn’t have to spend as long commuting. Classes were smaller, so I could get advice from professors instead of going to teachers’ assistants.

As I changed schools, I also changed majors. At UCLA, I was an English major. I wanted a career in writing, but I didn’t know what type of job I would have. When I started at CSUN, I jumped around majors for a while. I started off with Journalism and considered Business, but I then went back to English and earned my degree.

By being flexible and willing to change, I prolonged my college career, but increased my chance for success.

The Importance of Starting a Career in School

Because of my mom’s illness, I had to work my way through school. This worked to my benefit because I was able get started on my career early.

At CSUN, I made use of the school’s Career Planning Department. I was able to find a paid internship at EnTech, a small Commodore software company. I started off writing press releases, but I went on to becoming the company’s public relations representative and wrote everything that needed to be written. That was how I got started on my technical writing career.

Even if you can’t find a paid internship, there are plenty of opportunities to get started on your career, even starting in junior high school. The skills I learned working on school newspapers help me in my job designing templates for the manuals I write.

Even the most academic of subjects can help you in your career. As an English major, I had to analyze literature and write papers based on my research. As a technical writer, I have to do the same thing: study technical specifications and extract the information that would apply to our users. (And if you can understand Faulkner, you can understand anything.)

Academics helped me with my career in another way. In one of my American literature, I studied a Herman Melville story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” That story would become the inspiration for my first novel, Offline.

Making Your Dream Come True

Junior high is a great time to start focusing on college. The motivation will help you succeed through the rest of your time in junior high and on through to high school. Now is also a good time to start developing time management skills that are crucial for success.

But realize that you still have a few years until college, and a lot can change in that time. Now is the time to learn more about different careers, use volunteer work to discover what you enjoy doing, and find teachers who can give you guidance. Also realize that things may happen in your life that may cause you to change your plans. As long as you stay true to your goals, you will fulfill your dream of earning a college degree.


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