Monday, April 30, 2012

"Protons & Electrons!" (Or is it Neutrons?)

Last week was an amalgam of emotions.

Wait.  The last YEAR has been one of the most emotional of my life.  That statement might be a tad dramatic, but that's how I feel right now.  I think of years in terms of academic years, and this academic year is drawing to a close.  My reaction to that news?  GOOD RIDDANCE, 2011-12 academic year.  Don't let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.  You ain't got to go home, but you got to get the heck up outta here.  You get the point.

But as the academic year comes to an end, something put a smile on my face and filled my heart to the overflowing.  The students from the classes of 2010 and 2011 decided to converge back to our campus for an unofficial alumni weekend.  It was as if the universe knew what I needed and gave it to me in the form of about 10-15 young men and women with whom I had developed personal relationships that fulfilled me, probably more than I had ever helped them in my profession as a counselor and academic advisor.  I hosted a gathering for them at my apartment, and one of the young women decided we should play a game called Protons and Electrons.  She kept mistaking electrons for neutrons, and after a quick physics lesson from several of her former classmates, we started the game.  The most common proton - or positive comment - was that everyone was happy to be back on campus spending time with their college friends.  The electrons varied. Most of them had to do with a job, whether it was the reality check given at their jobs about how the "real world" functions, or not having a job.  There was a cynicism that had crept into these young people's lives - and these were the ones who wanted to (and still want to) change the world.

At one point, I realized that what they had learned after one or two years post-undergrad, I was really learning now, after almost twenty years working in education.  It's not that I never saw these things.  It's not that I hadn't had terrible experiences in my various jobs.  Believe me, I've had my share.  It's just that this past academic year had such an effect on me that others have mentioned that I've changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Things have changed.  I don't know if it's me, or the students I work with now.  I've been working for the same program for five years.  This was a dream job for me, and I truly loved it until this year.  Yes, I'd started a Ph.D. program.  Yes, I was already coordinating a women's leadership program in addition to my actual counseling/academic advising job.  Yes, half way through the year we lost a staff member who was badly hurt.  And yes, our director had to take time off for educational purposes.  But I'm not sure it was any of those things that made a difference.  In my mind, the biggest difference was the kind of students we now serve.

Case in point.  (Disclaimer: I do really care about my students, sometimes to a fault.)  One of my students came to see me last week, and when I asked about her classes, she said that she knew she wouldn't get a very good grade point average; in fact, she knew she was going to fail at least one class.  I asked if there was any way she could pull off the minimum grade that would keep her in good standing, and she said it wasn't possible because she'd missed every class since the mid-point of the semester.  She had a 3.0 grade point average coming into this semester, and after we estimated and calculated her grades for this semester, I showed her that she would be well below the minimum g.p.a. and could potentially be put on academic probation.  Again, she had a 3.0 g.p.a. in her first semester, which is great, especially at our college.  Since she is interested in the medical field, I asked her what she thought she would need in order to get into med school.  She imagined she would need a 3.7 grade point average, so we calculated how many perfect semesters she would need.  FIVE.  Five semesters of no less than a 4.0 g.p.a.  I gave her that piece of paper to take with her so that she could ponder how ONE semester of letting her academics go will affect the majority of her college career, and her life-long goals.

This year, helping students transition to college became less of a dream job and more emotionally draining.  Along with the personal issues that I had to deal with, including several losses in my family, this work that I'd always enjoyed getting up to do every morning became a chore.  I'd lost my passion and was definitely burned out.  This academic year, for sure, was my ELECTRON.

Last Friday, the women's leadership program I coordinate and advise had its final recognition ceremony.  It was, as always, a beautiful event, with the participants sharing their experiences of the program in a transparent and emotional manner.  As I stood to give an address to the group that was gathered, I mechanically went through the speech I had written, but felt there was more to share.  At that moment, I shared how the organization was now five years old, and how when my nephew was five, I took him to school.  His class would line up in the cafeteria to go to their classroom, and as I moved to take him directly to the cafeteria, he said, "I can go by myself."  I watched as he walked down the hall away from me, and walked confidently towards the cafeteria, and I cried.  I cried because he didn't need me in that moment.

I told the group that this year, the program seemed like my five year old nephew, walking confidently away from me while I stood there mourning how much it didn't need me any more.  And while I am still here, and still find it difficult to let go, I know that one day it will finally move away from me confidently, but I will still be watching it, just as I'd watched my little nephew walk towards his independence.

I only realized it then, in that moment, that the pain I'd experienced with my five year old "baby" - this program - was part of the growth process of an organization and those who run it.  It was my own growth moment; realizing that I could let go and trust that the legacy I'd helped build would continue, especially as the women gave their testimonies about what the program meant to them.  At the end of such a difficult year,  I'd found my PROTON.

Somehow, I couldn't reach this perspective without the alumni sharing their "electrons" and "protons".  Their love, their hugs, their words of comfort and support, opened my heart enough to see what felt like an "electron" in my life as a "proton".  

And if you know me, you know I'm not much of a "neutron" woman.