I didn't recognize the plain white cardboard envelope resting between the screen and front doors—a non-descript, slender package with "do not bend" stamped in red on the front. I could have mistaken it for any number of mail-order envelopes with cheap, used books inside. I broke the seal and peered in.
My delight was instantaneous. Inside was a single sheet of white paper resting in a clear plastic cover. I had nearly forgotten its promised arrival. Feet dancing, hands pumping above my head, my celebration was a simultaneous outpouring of relief and joy. After years of hard work and sacrifice—mine as well as my husband's— my master's degree was acknowledged on paper with ink.
It had been nearly four years since I decided to return to school. The coursework and graduate project that followed were challenging and difficult. Some days, writing, reading, and weeping late into the night, I could hardly remember why I went back. But sorting through the reasons why I wanted to return in advance of my decision was what gave me the strength and determination to finish.
Hope, promise, and payback
When I explored the opportunity to return to school, I was one of many women who were flooding post-secondary institutions. Adult women returning to school was already a growing national trend, but the recession caused an additional surge.
Women of all ages were attending colleges and universities in large numbers. Degree attainment statistics between men and women had shifted in both bachelor and graduate programs. According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of women completing bachelor's degrees had increased over men by 7 percent since the mid-1990s, and women completing graduate degrees had outpaced men by 3 percent over the same period.
More relevant to me was the number of people over the age of 35. The NCES predicts that people in this age demographic enrolled in degree programs would exceed 4.1 million by 2015. According to ABC News, we "middle-agers" strongly believe that post-secondary education improves the quality of life by providing higher pay and better opportunities.
Returning students often use statistics, such as the study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, to demonstrate that college graduates earn 84 percent more throughout their careers than those with a high school diploma alone. But for me and other middle-aged adults, the years remaining to calculate payback didn't add up. Often, our careers would be more than half over at the time of degree completion, so the number of earning years is significantly reduced.
While I had hoped a higher earning potential and better opportunities would be a natural result of completing a graduate degree, I didn't bank on it. The research and financial calculations didn't promise it and ultimately, it wasn't what I most desired.
Underwhelmed by mediocrity
At the time of my decision, I was in a mid-life transition. I was bereft of meaningful work, empty-nested, and drifting through a personal identity crisis. After 25 years of balancing work, a husband, church, and children, I was underwhelmed by the mediocrity of everything I had achieved. I was not completely disappointed about my choices, but I longed for something more purposeful, better, or different.
One of my favorite Bible stories comes from 1 Kings 18. It is the story of Elijah and of God's miraculous demonstration on Mount Carmel. Against all odds, astonishing the priests of Baal, Elijah is the Lord's chosen prophet who declares God's power before the altar bursts into flames. While incredible to read, the miracle is not my favorite part. It's when Elijah, great prophet and recent witness of God's authority, tucks tail and runs for 40 days and nights across the desert.
As an instrument of God's power, Elijah should have been on top of the world, ready to conquer any and all who stood in the way of God's holy purpose. But he doubted and ran for his life.
I too was filled with doubt. I had accomplished many great achievements but was not acknowledging God's power in the process. Adding one more initial after my name would not satisfy the emptiness I felt. If there was one thing I needed to learn from Elijah, it was that a mountaintop experience is frequently followed by a fall. Going back to school for the sake of achievement would not fulfill me. It had to be about something deeper.
Finding God's purpose
In "How to Get Unstuck," Forbes blogger Susannah Breslin writes frankly about how she felt during a significant life transition. Jammed between a breast cancer diagnosis and being downsized at work, she explains that she didn't become unstuck by doing nothing or by doing something. Getting unstuck was about "enduring the horrible part between." It was about heart change and trying even when it's painful.
Being stuck in my own place "between" made doing nothing a simple option. Resignation to paralyzing self-doubt required no effort. But standing still and simply accepting circumstances as they changed around me was not what my heart or God desired. What God wanted most for me was to learn, grow, and change.
Ultimately, I chose to return to school because I desired to learn and grow, and that was the right reason for me. But God's work within me was not limited to a specific graduate program or school as the outlet for change. What did matter was the trying—developing the heart to follow God's lead and to recognize his goodness and sovereignty.
God had given me a heart for learning. The world had given me disquieted self-doubt. My education came from the acceptance of God's truth over the world's teaching. The degree I earned in the process—validated on paper with ink—was just the life experience through which I learned it.
Mary Goodrich serves as marketing director for Today's Christian Woman, SmallGroups.com, Christian Bible Studies, and Men of Integrity. She holds an MA in Organizational Leadership from Judson University and a BA in English Literature from Northern Illinois University. Mary lives with her husband, Greg, who developed exceptional cooking skills while she attended school. Follow Mary on Twitter @marysramblings.