The 30-year degree. Or: how I finally just did it.

This post is adapted from one I wrote for American University in Washington, DC, a couple of years ago.

In the late 80s, I wanted to go back to school for my graduate degree. I was thinking I would go back to my alma mater, American University’s School of International Service. But I found a “real” job in a different field and begin to make “real” money. Graduate school, meh.

In the late 90s, I wanted to go back to school. But no, I couldn’t take the time. I was a freelance writer, finding a lot of work in writing government proposals for large companies. I realized I was just not cut out for 9-5, office politics, or clawing my way to the top. I worked hard at developing my growing client list. I was able to manage the peaks and valleys of customer demand. Anyone who works as a freelancer has experienced the “feast or famine” of non-traditional employment.

In 2005, I wanted to go back to school. But no, I couldn’t. I had two babies at home (they are now 16 and 14!). I had been in and out of Corporate America, pretending for a short while to claw my way to the top. In 2005, I was alternating between wanting what I thought was professional freedom and needing a stable income. I had developed that combination of freedom and stability by co-founding a small business – which, by the way, is still limping along.

In 2011, I wanted to go back to school. But no, I couldn’t. Syria, homeland of my parents, exploded in a revolution for freedom, dignity, and democracy. I jumped in to support the movement, abandoning family, work, career, and any notion of school. I became a spokesperson for one activist group, then another, and yet another. I wrote articles, opinion pieces, and book chapters on Syria’s revolution. I participated in public debates and started a nonprofit organization called FREE-Syria. I got involved in women’s groups, peace groups, protest groups, and social media groups. I coordinated workshops, facilitated trainings, and gave lectures till I was hoarse. I learned a lot, but I simply did not have time for graduate school.

In 2016, I wanted to go back to school. This had been a dream deferred for nearly 30 years! It was time – as Nike would say – to Just Do It. I stopped thinking about the reasons I didn’t have time. Instead, I focused on all the reasons to make time. I was in “yes, I can” mode.

I applied to AU’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program. It was the best I had found in terms of quality, depth, and prestige. Within days, an advisor contacted me. Within weeks, paperwork completed, I got my welcome letter. YES! Yes, I can.

In 2016, I finally went back to school. As you might guess, I was the oldest person in my classes, probably twice the age of the average Masters candidate. In fact, I was probably older than most of my professors. And while my fellow students tended to act a little deferential, at least they didn’t call me Grandma! But everyone –  classmates and professors – taught me something new every day. The class discussions and student interactions kept me engaged; the course materials kept me wanting to learn more. Sometimes the work was challenging; other times it merely validated what I already knew through decades of professional experience.

I really believe that one of the key factors that keeps us motivated is a quest for learning. I think that’s why we go to school and why we travel, make new friends, and seek new experiences. New knowledge just complements and enhances our toolkit of life experiences.

Masters degree
Tens of thousands of dollars and I-don’t-know-how-many-hours-later…

Anyway…

In 2018, I received my Masters in Strategic Communication. Because I learned to stop making excuses. Because I knew I could spend another few decades saying no, I can’t. Because I finally had that moment of clarity: yes, I can. And yes, I did.

I’m sure everyone out there has their own stories of personal achievement. What are some of yours? 

 

Solo travel is empowering. Or: How I fell in love with Spain.

This summer I visited a childhood friend who now lives in Madrid, Spain. We had planned to explore Andalusia, and made plans to visit cities Cordoba and Granada. The day before our planned travel, my friend had an unexpected visitor and could no longer make our trip.

What to do? Tag along and be a third wheel? Go alone? I had never traveled solo as a tourist. For business, yes – plenty of that. But as a single female tourist? Nope.

The idea of solo travel was both intriguing and intimidating: the thought of the independence and freedom was exciting. I could do whatever I damn well pleased, without having to accommodate anyone else’s desires. On the other hand, what about mealtime? I would have nobody to talk to! Was there a certain etiquette for solo travelers? Would people think I’m a loser, or have no friends? Incidentally, concerns about personal safety did not cross my mind.

In the end, I took the plunge and went to Cordoba, Granada, and Alhambra on my own.

Guess what? Solo travel is completely empowering!

CordobaIn Cordoba, as I walked from the train station to my little hotel, I realized I didn’t have to listen to someone else talking. I could focus on my surroundings. I could actually hear the sounds of the city, if that makes any sense. I fell in love with Cordoba.

At Hotel Marisa (clean, budget-friendly, awesome location), I felt a renewed sense of independence. I actually felt at peace with myself – and if you’re reading this and you know me, you know very well that it’s been a long time since I’ve been at peace with myself. In any event, I spent a couple of days walking around the old city, exploring the narrow streets and stopping occasionally for a cold beer or a glass of sangria.

Next stop, Granada. I had the same feeling of freedom, independence, and peace at Hotel Palacio de los Navas, an incredibly lovely and comfortable hotel right by the Plaza de los Campos. For a couple of days, I walked around the city, both on my own and through a free tour the hotel had recommended. I fell in love with Granada.

Alhambra
Castle at Alhambra

Before heading back to Madrid from Granada, I decided to walk to Alhambra to see the spectacular castle, fortress, and views. Unfortunately, I had to leave – otherwise, I would have stayed in Alhambra for another week. I fell in love with Alhambra.

So here’s the thing about solo travel: all it requires is a little bit of self-confidence. Mealtime is no problem if you people-watch, or chat with your server, or make conversation with other solo travelers. If people look at you, don’t get self-conscious. They’re looking at you because you’re cute. Or because they admire your courage. Or both.

What I learned is that after 50, you CAN renew your confidence. You CAN regain your inner peace. And in doing so, you can fall in love. On this trip, I fell in love with Spain, and I fell a little in love with me.