Please Excuse my Grammar

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This is a long story, but I feel sheds light on education in general and why academia and educational institutions function so poorly that they drive the brightest into the dark.

More than once I have told by an academic advisor that I am going to fail

2nd grade was my first brush with failure, I started young and I failed English. I remember my parents telling me that I could not pass 2nd grade without learning to read. Yet, I showed them, I passed with a D! For some reason, being the independent 6 year old I felt smug knowing I had outsmarted them and by the middle of 4th grade I was in deep trouble. At this point I had to be enrolled in an after school tutoring program, since I still did not really know how to read. This was expensive for my parents and I regret it now (realizing how childish I was when… I was a child), but at the time I thought little of it.

I remember myself sitting in a chair and speaking the first time with the overweight, scraggily haired tutor across the table. She was explaining to me how this tutoring program worked and looking back it was perfect. The tutor laid out the process of how in this tutoring program for each thing we accomplish we receive a coin, we then can use our coins to purchase items. Simple things such as candy, to things such as tents, or radios, etc. The most expensive items were probably $50 – $100, but to me this was amazing! I worked very hard, saved all of my coins, and by my last day in the program I bought out all of the items they had available that day.

For me, what was important is achieving something. In this case I wanted to do what I perceived as the hardest thing to do, to buy out all of the “prizes” for doing a good job. Thankfully, (as a happy coincidence) I learned to read.

This was just the first of many challenges I faced, largely due to the fact I chose not to learn to read until late 4th – early 5th grade.

Because my school district placed students into teams in middle school  (6th – 8th grade, based on merit/exams in elementary school) I, of course, was placed into the “c” team. You might be thinking that I deserved it and I would agree with you. However, this put me in the position where I was always with the rowdy, obnoxious, loud kids. This further compounded the problems I was having. At this point in my education I knew I wanted to (at the very least) pass my classes, which I suppose is an improved attitude over my elementary days.

My time in middle school passed without much incident, I was the classic “c” team student. I received C’s. Ironically, during this time I also scored in the top 1 – 10% of students for my standardized exams. Why ironically? Because when we went from middle school to high school we had two factors the effected where we were placed yet again, and my middle school advised the high school that I take remedial classes.

Now this is what troubles me, I understand that I was not a good student. However, it was/is a public school system and my family pays taxes to fund the teachers, school, the system, so when I requested that I be moved up to regular (or preferably honors/advanced courses) I don’t understand why I was denied. Further, I remember going down to my counselors office to request this and she specifically told me my test scores were more than high enough, but other kids had earned their places in the classes and I had not.

Although I understand where she is coming from, the fact remains that it is difficult to compare course grades and argue that someone is more deserving than something than someone else. Each and every course I took in middle school was a joke, I literally had nothing stimulating and often my teachers were down right sadists in my opinion. Most just seemed so tired of their jobs that they would rather strangle us than teach us, and I they receive my empathy. The courses I was required to take was filled with problem children, the ones with no parents, hell there were plenty of kids drinking/doing drugs in my 6th grade classes (mostly outside of school).

When I entered High School I wanted out of the hell hole of remedial classes, but alas I didn’t have the grades. Even though I was clearly smart enough, the fact I was (a) branded a problem child and (b) was unable to learn in a class where kids would scream and jump on desks kept me from moving up. For Freshman and Sophomore years of high school my life essentially followed the same path as most “c” team students from several years ago:

  1. Wake up – go to school
  2. Go to class
  3. Have the teacher spend 20 minutes trying to calm down the class
  4. Teaching 20 minutes
  5. Giving up and waiting until the bell rings
  6. Rinse and Repeat
  7. Go play for the school soccer team/play in the concert band
  8. Go home and practice soccer again
  9. Read until 2am since I had insomnia
  10. Go to bed

I probably spent a total of 4 hours a day, maybe learning something. Of those 4 hours, most of them were spend reading alone, late at night in my bed. I read everything but my favorites were mystery, science fiction, biographies, and history books.

Then when junior year came around I was told I would make the varsity soccer team, but I would be too small to start. Now this is almost an entire other story in itself, but needless to say I hated that coach. On my previous 2 teams I had been a captain and had even been approached by a recruiter (not 6 months earlier) to join one of the highest ranked travel teams in the state. I had even made the varsity team at our rival school as a freshman (I had originally gone to there tryouts for more practice… probably not very ethical in hind site)

This incident is pretty much when I blew a fuse. I quite soccer, I quite band, I would have dropped out of school and gotten my GED if my parents had not told me they would kick me out. Instead, I decided to stay in school, but in junior year I basically stopped doing anything school related. I read half a hundred business, economics, finance, and accounting books because I wanted to start my own business. I even went so far as to start different guilds in World of Warcraft to test out different management models (Jack Welch’s winning book inspired me enough to try that one).

The largest irony was that even though I didn’t attend half my classes, and if I did show up I never paid attention. Several teachers took interest in me and helped me out. Two teachers in particular, one kicked me out of her class (my physics teacher) because she thought I needed to move to honors. She told me if I wanted to graduate I would have to move up to honors because she wasn’t going to let me come back to her class. To be honest, I am still highly impressed she did that, and it probably had one of the largest impacts on my life. The other teacher (my english teacher) told me the first day of class I could move up to the AP course, after I explained to her why William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch was significant to literature after she caught me reading it (the book was apparently banned by our school district).

In a large part due to those two teachers my Senior year of high school I got nearly strait A’s in all AP courses. To be honest, I don’t even remember their names, but they changed my life for the better. Even so, that is not what this story is about…

Junior year when attempting to sign up for AP courses I was told, by the counselor that I could not. Mind you, my teachers recommended this time that I be moved up and my ACT (a standardized test) score was high enough I got my stupid photo on the wall. At this point I had had enough of this, so I walked across the hall, probably red faced and shaking with anger into the Principles office. After a couple of minutes, I was signed up for all AP courses and was one of the top students in every class.

Now the story could stop here, but I decided to go to college…

I decided to go to a the local community college, paying literally less than a tenth of what I pay currently at the University of Illinois. There however, was the first time ever that my test scores actually came in handy. I was allowed to finally join/enroll in the honors program there with no fuss. I took a 18 hours my first semester, 20 hours my second, and 11 hours over the summer. I worked 20 hours a week, helped my drive my dad/brother around *(my dad had isolated cancer in his thyroid and a couple surgeries), my girlfriend of several years dumped me, and yet I still managed a 3.1 GPA and honors credits (which mean nothing I later found out). Not bad in my opinion. Unfortunately, that does not matter for transferring to Universities and why should it? I was told by everyone it was very unlikely I would get in, especially getting a C in calculus.. Yet, since I knew I was smart enough and I kept trying. Even though I use to get emails weekly from an advisor there trying to convince me to become a repair man, electrician, or CNC operator.

The next two years I continued working 20 hours a week and taking a full load of courses, two years after enrolling my GPA was a 3.3 and I was declined from University of Illinois’s Computer Science program (I was accepted to Purdue, but it was way to expensive). At this point my parents even weren’t even very supportive. Yet, I continued, received strait A’s in my remaining math/programming courses (Linear, C++, C, Data Structures, Differential Equations, Discrete Mathematics) at the community college and was accepted into the University of Illinois Spring 2013.

I must say, I was slightly surprised. Perhaps it was the fact in my admissions essay I added the phrase “This is my third time applying, and I’ll apply every semester until you accept me.” To be honest I don’t know why I was accepted. This year I was told they have a pile of over 100 students with 4.0’s that they can’t figure out how to decline, but they don’t have the capacity to accept them.

Since, I have been here (about a year) I have spent roughly 10 days dealing with a personal issue that had to be resolved via lawyers (nothing bad nor criminal), had to continue working to pay for my school and even started a few side semi-businesses to pay for most of next semester, I also have a girlfriend who has had a large number of financial issues relating to things entirely out of her control and we’ve managed to continue her going to school as well. While all of this has been coalescing around me, somehow I have still managed a 3.26 GPA overall (my first semester here I had a 3.5). All sounds good, but last semester, I dropped the ball, I got a 2.0 GPA a D and C- in two core classes.

The unfairness of it is I no matter how much documentation I have proving I worked ridiculously hard (70+ hours a week) I still can’t fix it. This week I was told out right by yet another advisor that I would probably never be able to attend graduate school. She gave my chances at ~10%, and she said even that is with having strong letters of recommendation. She even told me if I got published it probably wouldn’t make any difference (I am currently working on two projects which should be publishable next year).

My point in writing this story, is that I would like to change the world. I feel smart, my tests showed I’m smart, I know I work harder than most of my friends, and yet I feel lost. I love learning, I spend time on the weekends teaching a small ACM SIG with the university about BioInformatics and Neurology, and I just bought an EEG for one of my side projects to help determine “what makes a good book.” I am undergraduate working in a research lab writing OpenCL code to run on a GPU as well as OpenMP code for the CPU, in an attempt to optimize discovering fiducial markers via a colored camera… Heck, the PhD I am working with seems to think of me enough to accept me out of the pile of other applicants, accepting 12 – 15 of 25 or so applicants and he further fired/booted 9 of the 12 people who were working with him last semester. Clearly, he thinks of me at the very least as an intelligent undergraduate.

That being said, I have read the graduate school requirements and I’m calling B.S. sure you need to be intelligent, capable and near the top to push the boundaries of your field. However, does a 3.5+ GPA really mean that? To me it seems more like they played it safe, they didn’t push themselves hard enough. How many of them took 20 credit hours, while working 20 hours a week, and had a family who needed him to help. The answer is, very very few.

That’s my problem with education system/academia, you cannot judge a person by their GPA because you lack any sort of picture or scope. I have one year left after this semester and this semester I am getting decent grades (3 A’s, 2 B’s currently), and regardless of whether a graduate school would accept me or not, I don’t know if I want to go to graduate school at this point…

What is the point of supporting a system where people who work 70+ hours a week, are fairly intelligent (I’m not doing that bad..), dream big, and truly love every moment they spend working in their field, still have <10% chance of getting in a graduate school.

I know this is not the case, but I can’t help but wonder….

What if I had just done what I was told and learned to read?

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15 thoughts on “Please Excuse my Grammar

  1. I found this piece inspirational. Yes, your grammar could use correction, but that is not the point of the article.

    I sincerely hope you reach every one of your goals and more.

  2. Very inspiring story. Keep working hard! You’re right about academia though–it’s a messed-up place. I’m a Computer Science undergrad at the University of Washington, shoot me an email if you want someone to proof-read your grad school essays or just chat 🙂

  3. 1) learn spelling 2) if a professor wants you to work for him as a grad student and has a TA or RA position for you, that can override a lot of other things

    1. Pretty sure you missed the point… I was intentionally misspelling (or at least not rereading what I wrote). Part of my intent in writing this is to point out that the system really doesn’t support learning. The only reason I managed to get anywhere was a couple of teachers/parents cared enough to push me and saw I was capable. That is the point of an education system, and yet our system seems to intentionally harm my ability to learn.

      Further, my Mother and brother are dyslexic and if you ask some of my friends I am sure they would agree I have some issues, but I feel I have over come them for the most part.

  4. I can tell you as a hiring manager at a software company that we look past GPA. We’re semi-suspicious of 4.0 GPA. Have they ever experienced failure? How will they react to adversity? What matters much more than that is…portfolio (Samples of your work, past achievements) Can you do the work or not? A “real” education is overrated in comparison to the ability to learn on one’s own. My advice is to start your career and get paid. If nobody wants to pay you, go create something so obviously good that they will have no choice.

    As for your closing question, reading early is a huge head start in life. All of this would’ve come much easier, and you’d be a different person. From reading this, I sense you’re proud of what you’ve done — so don’t wish or regret, just move forward.

    Considering your history, it might be easy to distrust every institution and carry that to a job. Be careful with that.

    1. Thanks for the advise. I think about,

      Considering your history, it might be easy to distrust every institution and carry that to a job. Be careful with that.

      quite often and attempt to be mindful of it. I have worked well with my teams in the past and I have an internship this summer with Capital One, so I am already on my way to getting paid. However, I have some pretty nice side projects I intend to still work on and I am hoping to at some point apply to a graduate program on my terms, or just work on my own after I am financially established. I don’t have much debt since I’ve been working throughout this whole time.

  5. Hey —

    Illinois 2012′ drop-out here, but I left with a 3.78 GPA (after 7 semesters worth of credits), started two companies while in school, and was on exec boards for multiple student organizations.

    Here’s your lesson: understand where you want to go and the restrictions around that goal. Some restrictions are malleable while others aren’t. You’re clearly awesome and you believe in yourself — that’s the hardest step of all… but you’re not done.

    You’re spreading yourself too thin. GPA can change. My first semester I had a 3.2 — companies wouldn’t even talk to me. Prove them wrong by focusing. One of my friends graduated with a 4.0 in ECE while taking all of the hardest classes — how? He would literally drink half a gallon of water a night, sleep in Granger, be forced to wake up at 5am because he had to piss so bad, and get back to studying. It’s a silly life. In my opinion, the stress he put himself under wasn’t worth it, however the story has a point to it. Find out what you need to do and do it — don’t make excuses.

    You’re working on two research projects AND taking classes AND studying on the side. You’re literally sacrificing your GPA in order to do other things. Stop that! Start spending more time going to class office hours, memorizing material, making side projects that directly involve applying class concepts, etc. Be able to answer every question on quizzes as if you’ve know the information for months. Do what you need to do to get your GPA up.

    You’ve certainly still got a shot at a masters program. If you must, defer the required courses you need to take and take other courses to boost the GPA first. Get scholarships to fund that class extension.

    All of this assumes a masters program is right for you in the first place. I don’t think you sound like an academic at all, and I mean that as a complement. You sound adventurous and exploratory — academia is filled with process and bureaucracy. There’s no way I can truly know you from a simple blog post, so if I’m wrong, go for it — but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve tried simply because you’ve worked hard. You must work hard on the *right things*.

    Good luck Austin!
    Zach

  6. Don’t worry about GPA so much. It does not define who you are. My undergraduate was 2.97 because I am a slacker for no good reason. It was so bad my CS department won’t accept me. I did EE just so I could take CS classes.

    I learned my lesson and got into my master conditionally. I work during the day and Intern whenever I can. Got offered full time job 1 year later and finished my master degree in 6 years with 3.4. No one ever asked me about my GPA. It is not even on my resume.

    Today I am a senior software engineer and pulled in 230k last year. Email me if you want to talk. Best of luck.

  7. Honestly, who cares about graduate school? Or academia? You can make a much larger difference, make more money, and be happier outside of state programs in the private sector in which you’re dealing with people who actually have an incentive to make others lives better. I mean good god, you tell a fine story of hard work, but that you crap all over it with “but I can’t get into graduate school!” It’s like you’re trying to get back into remedial classes all over again. The real world could use you, and you sure as hell could use it.

  8. Austin –

    First off, thank you for sharing your personal experience. It is very moving, and I agree whole-heartedly with your message. I have had different experiences with the same overall story, and the education system needs to be reformed. You are approaching your education the right way; keep your head up.

    Best,

    Josh

  9. I can only respond to this as someone who lives 4000 miles away in a foreign country and probably grew up under very different circumstances, but I wonder why you keep putting up with academia if it seems like it’s such a bad fit. To me it looks like you are trying to prove something yourself or to other people, instead of doing what it is good for you..

    From what I can see you’re smart, you’re able to learn on your own without the need of educational institutions, and you even seem to have the motivation to work very hard for your success (much more motivation that I would have..).

    What I would do, and remember this is advice from someone who is very far away and does neither know the circumstances of your life nor your motivations, is to finish whatever degree you are working on and then drop out of school as soon as reasonable.

    In the meanwhile, BEFORE you drop out, try to acquire some marketable skill and some portfolio to show. You’re in computer science, and this is probably the ideal field to do this. Pick up some up-and-coming technology or programming language that you like, contribute to some projects on Github, create one or two projects of your own, and use this to find a job. Startups are pretty much the most exciting jobs around. They usually don’t care too much about degrees or prior job experience, and there’s no place where you can learn more in a shorter time – at least if you are willing to put in some long hours for relatively low pay and can deal with the drama. By the way, I don’t mean this in a ‘get in a startup to get rich’ way, even though that’s a nice option, but to learn and get experience for possibly better paid jobs.

    That’s pretty much what I did, 17 years ago, after exactly one year wasting my time at a local university, and I have never regretted it.

  10. Get the hell out of the US, and fly over to Europe where you will get into any top notch graduate program basically for free. Do your research. According to your profile I think it makes even more sense for so many reasons, if you know what I mean… Don’t say you have family “liabilities”, sorry what you have to put yourself first for a couple of years. Please excuse my English 😉

  11. Hi,
    Nice article. I’ve often felt the same during my years at school, but for different reasons. Nevertheless, I liked your article. I’ve read several comments about your spelling, and I have to say it bothered me a bit. I understand that it was on purpose and your arguments are all valid, defending your position, BUT, I would correct everything if I were you. It is easier to read. Anyway, just my two cents. Good luck for your studies/work/companies ;).

  12. I wasn’t part of the public education system for elementary and high school. I was….homeschooled. (And before you ask, yes, I had plenty of a social life.) The benefits were HUGE, especially in the area of unwasted time. Here is what each day looked like:

    9 AM – “Together” learning time where Mom reads us history and shows us geography, and reads from some classic literature. Science, where we learn from the book and do experiments in the kitchen.

    12 PM – Lunch, “Alone” time where I do my math and English.

    1 PM: Done with school for the day.

    4 hours/day, and we only did it 4 days a week. And I still graduated high school a year early.

    I’m not saying this to brag about myself, because my success was mostly due to my environment. But even a labeled “c” class student with ADHD, I believe could thrive in a 1:1 environment with a dedicated parent who can work with his limitations and special needs to stimulate his brain. Categories and labels don’t help anyone, yet when there is an organized system, there have to be categories for it to run smoothly. Unfortunately, it leaves a lot of kids in the dust.

    *Note: I am not saying that all children should be homeschooled, nor that all parents should homeschool their children. There are quite a few exceptions! And I do believe homeschooling should be structured. No “unschooling” for me (which is the idea that kids can teach themselves about the world and they don’t need books. Stupid.)

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