So, I'm returning to university (a thing not particularly interesting) during a global pandemic (something that interesting is an understatement for). Granted, I'm only going half-time as I have a full-time job, and it is an online course so the material itself probably won't be different pandemic-or-none. Regardless, interesting enough to warrant a new blog series on the topic.

You might be wondering: Why return to school at all? You’re already a software engineer, what’s there to gain? Well, unfortunately, the answer to that question requires exposition.

In 2001, at the age of 13, I was given the choice of either continuing to attend my normal regional public high school or to attend the county's technical high school. I would like to say I made this decision based on research (my regional high school ended up having a drop-out rate of ~12.5% for my graduation year). But, as a 13-year-old, I decided to go to the technical high school because my mum worked for the regional high school. And having your mum work for the high school you go to is not very cool.

This was the first thing to go terribly wrong in the Education of Patrick Brown. In one fell swoop I had significantly reduced my college prospects. I set myself on a course to graduate high school with the academic level of a high school Junior and no foreign language—a requirement for most, if not all, state schools.

The one good thing about the technical high school was that it had a Computer Programming shop, which I eventually ended up at. Due to the constant churn of faculty, it was a terribly mismanaged shop. As a freshman we learned binary to decimal/octal/hexadecimal conversions along with touch-typing tests ad nauseam, but no programming. In my Sophomore year we focused entirely on becoming A+ certified. Unfortunately, at the end of the year the school had apparently lost its funding to pay for the actual certification for 30-odd students, so we would have to pay out of pocket. As a result, none of us ended up taking the certification test. Mishaps like these continued until I got a high school diploma with a focus area of Halo 2, but it did open my eyes to the world of computing. Just in a shitty way.

Now this blog post isn’t supposed to be a sob story—it’s supposed to be about the quirky adventures of a 30-something returning to college while working full-time during a global pandemic, remember? However, the next part of this post is essential exposition for the narrative of the Education of Patrick Brown, despite it being kind of a downer.

During my senior year of high school, my dad moved to Seattle for the second time. I kind of saw this coming—he had lived there before when I was in elementary and middle school. However, later that year my mum had told me that her and her husband were also moving away to North Carolina once I graduated high school. Essentially, during my senior year of high school I learned that I would be completely living on my own sometime that summer.

So, in short:

  • I’m 18
  • I don’t have a bank account or financial support
  • I need to find a place to live
  • I need a job to pay for that place to live
  • Oh, I also need a job to pay for college
  • Fuck, I guess I also need to apply for a college?

It went about how you’d expect it would. I got a temp job, but once it ended I ran completely out of money. I failed out of nearly all of my classes I took at a community college because of the money situation. I fell into a deep depression. I worked various blue-collar jobs for 6 years. I lived in my car at times. Et cetera.

Okay, the bummer part is over. Phew!

I returned to community college in 2011 to fix the mess I had made. I had a GPA of 1.5-ish, and no proper state school would ever consider my application. I had work to do. I ended up majoring in Computer Information Systems because I remembered that I was pretty okay with computers from my time in high school. Eventually, I got an internship with a local web development shop.

My time at that web dev shop was a pivotal point in my life. I met some people who I still speak with daily and consider them some of my closests friends. On the other end of the spectrum, the owner of the web dev shop led to the second thing to go terribly wrong with the Education of Patrick Brown.

About half-way through the internship he started to mention strange things like, "college ruins good programmers" and "you want to have the right amount of education." These are extraordinarily odd things for someone providing an internship to say, but I didn't make too much of it at the time. By the end of the internship it became clear that he was treating the internship as free labor and a test period (justifying it as a benefit to me, which was not completely untrue), and once the internship actually ended he offered me a full-time position.

In hindsight, it is obvious to me that he was perfectly happy for me to drop out and have a full-time developer on a borderline minimum wage paycheck. However, at the time it seemed like my life was finally falling into place. I accepted an offer of $30,000/year which was above and beyond anything I had ever made before. Unfortunately, this meant I had to set aside my pursuit of my Bachelor's degree for the time being.

To be honest, I'm still not sure if this was a bad deal or not. I consider myself a successful software engineer at this point (7 years later), so maybe it was the right choice. However, I would be lying to you if I said not having a degree wasn't an albatross my entire career.

  • Of all my friends in the industry, I have never been promoted to a higher position.
  • When hunting for jobs, getting past the résumé parser is nigh-impossible without an education section.
  • On occasion, recruiters have abruptly ended calls when they found out I did not have a college degree.
  • During a technical interview, I had a interviewer quiz me on basic geometry and algebra ostensibly because he saw I didn't have a degree on my résumé.

Any and all of these would be reason enough to complete my degree. However, I think the most important reason is this:

I really want to.

Seriously! I find learning fun. I actually don't hate writing essays (okay, some suck). Math is so rewarding when it finally clicks. And for my physical science gen-eds I get to study the solar system—how cool is that? Finally, I get to finally wrap up a chapter of my life that was rife with turmoil and prove to people who didn't believe in me wrong.

I'll be updating this blog with updates on how things are going for me—thank you for coming on this journey with me!

👽