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Was going to college worth it?

I was asked this question recently by fellow college graduate Gene Mahoney, and I didn't have to think about it very long before throwing back a resounding "Hell No.”

A large portion of my life has been (wasted?) (spent?), either in preparation FOR college, IN college, or paying back the loans and bills I accrued AT college. When I look back now, and see what I'm doing these days, it would have made so much more sense if I had simply found a job somewhere and gone to a trade school or something. Here's my story.

Growing up, it was always preached to us at school that if we wanted to "succeed", we had to go to college. The guidance counselor in High School was always beating us over the head with it. Unfortunately, my parents were less than enthusiastic about it. My father was a construction worker and my mother a nurse, both made decent money and didn't see the need to spend any on college. Plus, I was one of 6 kids, and they certainly couldn't afford to send all of us, even if we did want to go.

So, in my senior year of high school, I starting to plan the rest of my life. I decided to join the Army for a few years and sign up for the GI Bill, which I thought would allow me to go to college. I signed up for six years, during which I hoped I would become more disciplined and mature which would help me in college. I only joined for the college money, but I also had a great time. I was sent to Germany as an Infantryman, and we patrolled the East German border and I saw a lot of crazy things. I was on the border in 1989 when the wall came down, and was one of the first US Soldiers a lot of East-Germans saw when they drove across in their little Trabant cars. I learned German, met a girl, had two kids, traveled all over Europe, and I don't regret a minute of it.

I got out in 1991, and immediately started looking for a school in Germany, since that's where my family was. I found the University of Maryland had an extension in Munich, so I signed up and started classes in January, 1992. However, the school was basically a dumping ground for spoiled kids of military officers and high-ranking enlisted personnel and was a major party school. It was Munich, after all.

I did three semesters in International Business, took accounting classes and German, and then at the start of the 4th semester, the school forgot to send in my finance paperwork and the GI Bill people stopped sending checks! One night I got a knock on my door in the dorm, and a school official told me I had to pay in full or leave in three days. Of course, I was living off that $800 check, as well as sending the rest to my ex and the kids, so I didn't have $1700 lying around. I had to leave and could only hope to come back and finish.
So I had to go find a job in the meantime, and in the end, due to the military leaving Germany, the University of Maryland closed both its Munich and Augsburg branches and that was that.

My relationship with my ex was pretty sour by now; she wanted me to simply get a factory job at Bosch or some other place, so I could pay for her and the kids. I was only 26 years old, and I knew if I did, that would probably be it for the rest of my life. I left Germany and headed back to the states, my plan being to get a 4-year degree in something, then get a good job and be able to pay child support, etc.

I thought I would like to work in hotel management, so I visited the University of Las Vegas, and even got a job at a local hotel, but after a few months I could see I hated it. The manager was always on call, had to live in the hotel, etc.

After a year in Vegas, I was sick of the heat and bad attitude of most everybody, so I moved to San Francisco, to the Mission District, and decided to settle down and finally get a degree.

After talking to counselors at several schools, I decided that I wanted to learn Computer Arts, which included web design, graphic art, digital video, and 3D Modeling and Animation. Stupidly, I enrolled in the Academy of Art University, which was then known as the Academy of Art College; basically a real-estate company/diploma-mill for talentless teens. Most of the kids were non-English speaking Asian kids, and I later found out the AAC advertised(s) heavily in Asia. Surprise! No portfolio is required to enroll. I also fell for their lies about their "job placement" program.

So for 4 years I worked as a security guard and several other odd jobs, putting myself through college, all the while racking up huge amount of loans and bills. I rented a room for $700 a month, bought groceries, and after sending what I could to my ex in Germany, was basically broke all the time.

From what I hear, none of the good firms hire anyone from AAU. They say they want real artists first, with portfolios, and very few of the students at AAU are real artists. They say training real artists on software is easier than software geeks becoming artists. (We had employees from Pixar and ILM come to the school and tell us so.) Soon I would have to start paying off my school loans, which were estimated to be around $650 a month, so that plus my rent and child-support - I was looking at $1500 a month, not counting bills and food.

The best job I could get with my new "degree" was at a copy shop/printing press company in the financial district. I was the only one there with a degree.

Well, the bills and interest got higher, and I was becoming depressed. All my sacrifices, all the money I spent, all the time away from my kids, just to get...this...worthless piece of paper? And this minimum wage job?

I was at the Irish Bank, one of my favorite watering holes, staring at myself in the mirror behind the bottles, when a guy started chatting me up. As fate would have it, he was an Army recruiter that worked at the local Recruiter station. We talked and I told him my hard-luck story, and he said maybe I should reconsider re-enlisting into the military. My school loans would be put on deferment for the length of my contract, so I wouldn't have to worry about that for awhile. Plus, I could choose a new job in the Army and maybe learn something of value. Finally, my kids could become "dependents" and have access to the local base in Germany, the PX, even medical.

Not seeing too many better options, I re-joined the Army in April 2001, and was sent to a commo-tech school, and then airborne school. Long story short, 9/11 happened, I was sent to Iraq, yada yada yada. Fast forward 4 years to 2005, I get out of the Army a veteran. I was well-trained, but still broke and still facing $65,000 in school loans.

Luckily, I kept my nose clean while in the Army and obtained a Secret Clearance with the government, which helped me become a military contractor overseas in Doha and now Afghanistan. I was well-paid, and in 4 years paid off all my loans and debt, I now have money in the bank. I met a girl in the Philippines and we have been together 6 years, I've been buying a lot of land and we are planning a business together, someday. I've traveled all over Asia, been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; places I never thought I'd been able to visit.
So now, looking back, how many years of my life have been wasted/spent on this stupid goal of trying to obtain the oh-so-sacred "college degree"? Was it worth it? What if I had simply found a job or gone to trade school? What if I had stayed in Germany and had gotten a job at a factory? That was over 20 years ago at this point, so I'd almost be retired. I would have seen my kids grown up and I would have had a happy life in Germany, I’m sure.

But, I also had a great time in San Francisco with all the great people I've met. I got to work with Gene Mahoney and his newspaper during its heyday. I also had many great experiences in the Army the second time around. I went Airborne and became a paratrooper; I went to Iraq during the war. I'm a vet so now I get free medical care at the Veterans Administration. Best of all, for the past 6 years I've been earning six-figures, tax-free, as a military contractor. My bills are all gone and I go on great vacations. If I hadn't ever wanted a degree, none of this would have happened. I wouldn't have been introduced to the Philippines, which I love as well. So like Gene asked me: was it worth it?

We all have to make decisions in our life that affect our entire futures. I can't live my life always asking myself "what if I did this", the whole "shoulda coulda whatif" thing. Everything I've done in my life has led me to this point in my life, so even if the college education itself didn't really help me in any way, it led to where I am right now. I'd like to say that it totally wasn't worth it, and I wish I hadn't ever gone, but who knows where I'd be right now?

James Dylan
SF Herald columnist

All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney