Navigating the academic maze

It was a typically cold, dark and wet Oregon winter night when I ran into my old college buddy Jim outside a small Mexican restaurant in Roseburg. I was just leaving as he was stepping through the door.

We had started school together, had a few similar classes, but then drifted apart as our academic trajectories traveled away from each other. Now, several years on, it was good to see him again. Since we both had open schedules, we decided to grab a table and catch up a bit.

I learned Jim had made a change in his chosen major three terms into his freshmen year, when he ran into a formidable barrier: college algebra. He revealed to me a story of one particular homework assignment that so frustrated and angered him that he took the only course of action he knew—he threw the book across the room, grabbed a beer and stormed out of the house to cool down.

Trouble is, Jim never picked up that book to finish that homework assignment, and subsequently dropped out of the class, and his major. Since most majors require college algebra, his list of options shrunk exponentially.

I’ve been thinking about this incident lately as I make the transition from computer science major to history major. I found that computer science for me is dry, boring and frustrating. I struggled with the existential question of, “Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?” Jim’s struggle was much more basic. He couldn’t figure out a math problem, and thus eventually gave up. That choice had a cascading effect that would help shape his entire future.

That astounds me. While I can sympathize with Jim’s predicament, I know now that there is much help out there for people in a similar crisis. Jim changed his college major based on a single instance—the inability to do one single math problem. I had to let that percolate for a minute. I liken that to deciding that one will never, ever drive a car because they don’t know how to change a tire. Or one will live in a tent and never in a house because they don’t know how to reset a tripped breaker.

If you are driving down the road and your Yugo suffers a flat tire, you can read the owner’s manual on how to change the tire if you are unfamiliar with the procedure. Likewise, every breaker box I’ve ever encountered has a small instructional sheet on the door with the reset instruction clearly printed.

Obviously, there is much help at hand for when we encounter struggles in life. I spent countless days in the tutoring lab in the Fourth Avenue Building struggling through my coding, and I was always grateful that help was there when I needed it. Likewise, I know I can go to my math or philosophy instructors during their office hours (yes, they keep them and yes, they are available) if I need help. In addition, Portland State has a whole department devoted to helping students find success. The Learning Center, located on the second floor of Millar Library, room 245, offers tutoring services as well as study strategies, tips for success and other assistance for students struggling or who just need a bit of guidance.

There is a somewhat common idea that college is a simple journey—that we take a series of classes, do the required work and earn a degree that then grants us permission to enter the real world. I won’t necessarily dispute that, but the journey from A to Z is not a linear one. We must understand that there is more than one way through this process, and obstacles can be overcome. Think of it as a maze that we must traverse. If we find our way blocked, we must analyze the situation, find a new route and take it. Giving up and giving in isn’t an option.

All of us are faced with choices in school and in life. We can let our struggles define us and allow them to dictate our actions, or we can divide and conquer. We can use this adversity to help build ourselves into better students, better people and better members of society. Or we can decide to let them knock us down, give us a quick kick in the gut for good measure, and leave us whimpering and unwilling to soldier on.

Don’t let your struggles define you. Reconnoiter as needed, but in the end you must take a stand and push through to success.