Monday, June 18, 2012

Hit a Wall, Found the Right Path

...after a mere 15 years. That passion (obsession?) of mine seems like a lifetime ago, and its realization is quite different from my initial (albeit confused) vision, but it nearly brings me to tears to see how that interest may come full circle...especially after burying it a decade ago.

Wait, let me back up.

Imagine a 15-year-old Jami spending part of her summer leisure time devouring every bit of information she could get from a biology textbook (mind you, this was before the class started), and you get an idea of how fascinated I was by the subject. Learning about the biological processes of living organisms and how it's all interrelated -- evolution, cell biology, ecology, genetics -- I absorbed whatever I could. I took two pretty intense biology courses in high school and loved every minute of it. I found great pleasure in the study of life, as anyone who knew me in at the time could confirm. In fact, I loved it so much that I chose Case Western Reserve University specifically for that reason.

And those of you who've only known me post-university are probably wondering how that turned into a computer science degree.

The problem was, quite simply, I didn't know what to do with it. I was (okay, I still am) a nerd who could only relate to the heavily academic aspects of learning, and like many graduating high school students, I didn't know how to turn a general interest into a career. I got accepted into a fancy-pants private university, which is supposed to be a remarkable achievement that one wouldn't consider questioning, and so I plowed full speed ahead into an undergraduate degree at CWRU. I thought a prestigious career as a geneticist was in my future, but as the unguided reality of my situation sunk in the first year of college, along with barely passing my second semester of chemistry, I started to panic. Could I really make it as a scientist? This was the path I was going down, even if I didn't understand how that would pan out as a living. I didn't have any mentors, older siblings, or college-educated parents to give me guidance. I was confused as ever, since I knew how much I liked the subject, yet I couldn't see how this would develop into a livelihood.

That was when, at the end of my freshman year, as I was buckling under the pressure to officially pin down my major, I decided to focus on a subject that would lead to a well-paying job. And so it was that I switched my comp sci minor to a major, and the rest is history. I suppose it would have been a good career move if I could have hacked it in that field, but the truth is, this choice wasn't any better, and I was still just as clueless about what to do once I graduated. This wasn't a technical program; it was theoretical program designed for post-grad research. I had made another huge mistake, and for what it's worth, I didn't truly realize how screwed I was until I was only a few classes away from graduating. So I stuck with it until the end. Yay for perseverance?

And this is why I didn't have any job prospects when I moved out to Seattle. After a summer of job searching, I was fortunate enough to fall into the unexpected role of editing novels, which suited me quite well for the first few years. Being a contractor is never particularly pleasant, but the flexible hours gave me the time I needed to sort out a lot of neglected aspects of my marriage, sexuality (and the whirlwind that came with that), independence, personality, upbringing, etc. It was a much-need time for introspection and moving around and figuring myself out, but now it's time to take my career off the back burner. I'm almost 30 now, and I'm past due for a change. I can't work in this business forever.

No, it's more than just a vague need for a change. I hit a fucking wall.

I can't keep going on, barely getting by, with a job that somewhat fits me, but is not sustainable. I'm tired of being chained to a computer. I want something practical, outside, hands on -- a job that brings meaning to my life. Get busy living, or get busy dying, and all that jazz.

Within the last couple of months, I've allowed myself to start exploring the idea of going back to school -- and doing it right this time. I always told myself that I would have to pay off my original student loans completely before taking on more debt, and while I've made a decent amount of progress (given the circumstances), I just can't keep putting my life on hold because of debt. I poked around at some community colleges, particularly Edmonds and Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWIT), this time with a much clearer vision of what I'm looking for. The environmental horticulture program at LWIT called out to me, and after investigating the curriculum and speaking to the head of the department, I've found what I want to do. This will give me the opportunity to work intimately with plants and learn about how to make organic farming not just a dream, but a real possibility. My experiments with gardening have been great, but I want to take it to the next level.

It may have taken me half my life to figure it out (boy, it feels weird saying it like that), but I now have the proper context and experience to understand what I want to do with biology. Sometimes life's funny that way.

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