Why I had to be a grad student

I am a big believer in education, now, but 30 years ago, when I was a 17-year-old high school graduate, you would not have heard me utter such words. In fact, I thought school was all about brainwashing. (Psst: I still do, but only if you let it be.)

People will sell you anything if you allow it. Education is sold and bought (not the more usual other way around). It is often sold in commodity fashion, which in my purposeful mind is, indeed, brainwashing.

Some people want to be brainwashed. I like my brain, dirt and all.

The reason I so disliked the idea of attending university when I was younger is, I am a utilitarian learner, a completely purpose-driven person. Each time I perused college programs, I ran into a cavalcade of required courses that would no more relate to my interests and career than a rutabaga would conjure world peace.

Unrelated learning, I knew, would not make me a more well-rounded person; it would bore me. Plus, I would be disgusted by having to pay through my pores for wasting time and brain energy.

Every time I read the required classes at the University of Whatever state or city, my purpose-driven mind offered only a resounding, ‘No, don’t do it. It’s a waste of time and money.

I crafted a successful career in graphic design and advertising for thirty years. I needed no 4-year degree for a creative career, and I steadily rose through the ranks, consistently performing in senior-level positions.

Then everything changed. I survived a major health issue, and discovered a need to learn new ways of thinking. Antioch University Seattle let me craft my own degree, not wasting one class, brain cell, or moment in unrelated subjects.

My new path had its detractors. People said things like, “Oh my God, it’s so expensive. You shouldn’t be doing this.” (I wonder if God stressed so much about money?) They would say, “The debt, oh, the debt!” Or, “You’re wasting your time and money on something that won’t benefit you,” which sounded incredibly familiar; my decades-old words returning in boomerang fashion through my friends’ voices.

The truth is, I had to do it. I had to go. If I had not attended university, I doubt I would have survived. Even if my body was healthy, my life perspective had been decimated by the medical issue.

When I graduated, I had amassed a healthy body of book narratives, and had the desire to refine and bring them to print. I wanted to attend grad school for the continuance of learning and for the piece of paper (which was originally why I had wanted the undergrad degree), but I had not yet discovered the true benefit of more school. I chose to wait.

I kept working in the interim, and I applied to grad schools. I was overjoyed to be accepted into Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA in Creative Writing program, regarded as a top-5 school. Acceptance was an accomplishment in and of itself. Antioch LA’s focus on social justice, environmental justice, and economic justice fit squarely with my newly acquired social consciousness, instilled by Antioch Seattle.

This was not brainwashing. It was becoming a better person, and realizing a much-needed new life vision based on my own Earth-given talents.

During my undergrad degree, I learned how to meld my creative voice and my social justice concerns. Before university, it seemed the smart thing to do was to keep my concerns to myself. After university, I knew social justice demands speaking up. Doing the opposite is basically irresponsible. Yet, the all-important broad perspective is critical in lending a balanced voice to the issues. These were my thoughts while I mulled over my grad school decision.

Antioch LA was incredibly patient.

Since my design career has been steeped in marketing work (I’ve been a graphic designer, copywriter, marketing director, marketing planner, strategic consultant, web designer, art director, and creative director), a balance of optimism and cynicism lurks in my consciousness around anything that is bought or sold.

Education, for better or worse, is sold and bought. This means I have to trust people who stand to gain quite a bit of moola from me financially if I attend, which is a hard sell to my brain. Yet, I had already experienced the enormous, life-changing benefits of fully investing my energy in mind-opening learning. Thus, I was able to make the belief leap.

Appreciated and trusted friends again voiced their concerns, all wise and worthy reasons for not attending grad school. I was listening.

I read advice from graduates who mourned the mountain of student loan debt and grieved the loss of productive years. More than one MFA holder said no one should attend an MFA program unless they had a scholarship.

I could understand their view completely, and I convinced myself they were right. I would not attend grad school. I would just keep writing. I was sure of it. I made my decision. I would get my books done and out of my own volition.

Except, I didn’t.

Life consistently got in the way of writing.

Thoughts of school still invaded my days for reasons I could not quite grasp, and I openly grappled with my decision among friends.

Long-time acquaintances said things like, ‘You are a graphic designer. Just keep earning a living with that,’ which is good advice. Life’s bills kept coming in. Graphic design and copywriting work kept coming in (thankfully!). I kept doing the same things I had done before school to maintain my standard of living and life routine.

Yet, I am largely a different person now. Staying the same while deriving the same happiness was not an option. I can still be a graphic designer, but I have to be a book writer now too. It is in my very soul.

Finally, the advice of three of my elder friends rang with an unexpected consistency. It seemed I had my own three wise men. Kings.

One said, “Don’t let anyone talk you out of your dreams.”

Another said, “You went half way with the undergrad degree. Now, you have to complete the journey with the MFA.”

The third said, “You are a talented writer. Your courage will be rewarded.”

Plus, there’s this thing about me. I see overarching patterns in the same way Haley Joel Osment saw dead people. Along with writing, it is what I have always done.

The pattern I saw was in everything I was doing. It was all keeping me from doing the one thing I most wanted to do: write.

In the waiting, in life, I discovered what was missing in me, my true benefit of grad school.

I still have the survivor perspective. This is what ultimately allowed me to flip my decision to attend. The survivor in me knows I only get one chance at this iteration of life. The oh-so-optimistic saying, “Tomorrow is not guaranteed,” it’s true. From this perspective, how could I not seize the opportunity Antioch LA provided?

Upon announcing my intent to register to Antioch, to my complete surprise, I was awarded a partial scholarship!

Enrolling in school meant making a second large financial commitment to, well, being me. It meant risking my future financial well-being. Yet, how could I not invest in becoming my truest self? In getting the most out of my talents, and pursuing my innermost dreams?

I can write anywhere. Unless I live forever, I will likely not run out of things to write in my life. I’ve been writing since I was nine years old. The motivation is always there.

What I lacked was focus. I lacked the perspective to know I had to let go of my living standard in some profound way in order to shift my focus to succeeding in writing—really, to succeeding in this chosen path.

Another thing I lacked was a community of writers. Grad school has brought that, and it is so unimaginably valuable.

It’s not that I needed pep rallies for writing. It’s knowing the individuals in our group are working on similar goals. It’s knowing we all arrived at Antioch for our own valid reasons, and we are each on a journey of discovery.

That is why I am now a grad student.

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

Thank you! This is going to feel good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *