College in Four Years and no Student Loans, Part I

© Fernando Caracena, 20 November 2012

The Academic Route

When I enrolled in High School, I marked down that I wanted to prepare for college--the academic route--rather than manual training. My ancestors were office workers and land managers. I was the first of my generation born on my father's side, and would be the first on that side to go to college. My father had wanted to go to college; but his dreams were taken by the Great Depression and the actions of my grandfather.

An advantage of my high school was that it was almost entirely mainstream,   mostly military kids. One or two Spanish descendants form rich families in Mexico attended school there as exchange students. They spoke English without an accent. I made many friends in high school. I learned from experience that I was the equal of anyone there in general, and better in some areas of study than most. For example, I excelled in Science (A student), and did fairly well in Mathematics (B+ student). The area of science where I did best was A+ in physics. On graduating, I received the Bausch and Lomb Science Award, as the outstanding Science student of my class. My grades in Science and Math were pretty indicative of my aptitudes: Physics, A+; Chemistry, A; Biology, A-; and Math, B+.

Master Operator

The first day at high school, I landed in study hall. It was a boring prison. Don’t talk. Don’t chew gum. It was presided over by a Hitlerean dried-up-old-prune of a teacher. I needed to get out. My opportunity came. They were asking for volunteers for projectionists. I was a home movie buff, we had our own 8 mm projector, so I jumped at the opportunity. Nearly every day, I was assigned as projectionist at one class or another. Sometimes, I showed some of the special movies for which they charged admissions. I got in free. Soon I was promoted to “Master Operator“. I was now charged with directing the whole staff of projectionists for an hour a day. I was entrusted with all the keys to store rooms, and an office. I had a pass to go anywhere in the building. Normally, a student could not walk very far down the hall before being stopped by a hall monitor and asked to see a pass. Once I gained recognition as a Master Operator, I was never stopped. I had an exhilarating sense of freedom, and a very quiet office where to study that was free from the distracting glare of the gestapo. 

Science was my game

Science was my game, not just at school, but where I lived. Before I had taken high school science, I had already learned a lot of it through reading and doing my own experiments. At first, Chemistry was making gunpowder, or green smoke. I did the simple stuff, like putting baking soda into vinegar, and putting out a candle with the heavier-than-air CO2 evolved from the reaction. I made a lot of rockets and firecrackers. My friends and I made cannons that shot steel ball bearings through old cans and license plates. Luckily none of us were ever injured. I experimented with electricity, and drew large spectacular sparks. I made crystal sets, and vacuum tube radios. I made a powerful telescope by attaching a 12 foot focal length eyeglass lens to the eve of the roof of our house, and captured the image with a very short focal-length objective lens. I could clearly see the craters on the Moon. I made small electric motors. I built gliders and model airplanes. I also collected frogs, and observed storms.

I also loved to draw and paint. I did many pen and ink sketches. I painted with poster paints. My father, who was an artist, gave me many pointers that helped me develop my skills. I remember once at college, that I told a friend that I was going to throw away a sketch that I had done. He argued that I should keep it. A passing African, cleaning lady offered to buy it from me. I offered to give it to her. No she wanted to buy it. So I sold it to her for a quarter. She went off happy with her purchase.

Saving for College

My parents had divorced when I was about thirteen years old. This drained the family finances. My father married a lady who stayed at home. This increased the financial drain on my father. I wanted to go to college, but knew that I could not count on my parents for any money. When I had just graduated from high school, I was at loose ends because I did not have a cent saved for college. Fortunately, my mother’s cousin knew the owner of a motel, where they owners were looking for someone to help around the grounds. I applied for it and got the job. I spent the hot Summer in the blazing sun at the motel, emptying trash barrels, sweeping, cleaning up, raking leaves, and digging in the gardens. I saved every penny that I made, except what I spent for bus fare. By the end of Summer, I had saved enough money to pay for almost the whole year of tuition and books at the local college.

At the end of the Summer, I gave my two weeks notice to the owners of the motel. They tried to talk me out of going to college to stay on instead on with this dead end job. I had taken the job with only one objective in mind. Having accomplished that, there was no way that I was going to continue. I marveled over how willing people are to exploit others for their own advantage. People that are not bad, may at the same time not be good either, and they can damage you if you do not pay attention to that bias.

The first year of college

I enrolled at a college which had recently changed from being a mining school to a more generalized curriculum. The engineers had painted a line across the street connecting the engineering part of the college with all the other buildings. Their side of the line was labled the name of the old mining college, and the other, the new name. Later this school was upgraded by the state to a branch of the state university.

I was pleased to see how different college life was to that of high school. There was much more freedom, and being a much larger institution, there was the strong sense of anonymity one gets in going to a big city like New York.

The first semester that I enrolled, the student advisor I had, did not allow me to take every course I wanted to take because the load added up to 22 hours, which was absolutely forbidden. Later, I found out that he had totalled the hours incorrectly. They were only 21 hours which I would have been allowed to take. So that first semester, I took only 18 semester hours. My grades were high, especially in Science, and next semester I was allowed to take 21 hours without question.

Time Passed Rapidly

I did well in college once I got in. Taking a full load to the limit required that I become and stay organized. Friends and I scheduled classes so that we had a free hour between every two classes. I spent that free hour studying and doing home work. It was a busy schedule from early in the morning through the early afternoon. After lunch, most days I was done and hung around at the student union playing ping pong and shuffle board. Some afternoons, I worked as a student assistant.

In the evenings, I would have supper with friends at some burger joint or at a restaurant that served a lot of food for  a very low price. I arrived at home in the early night to find my father asleep in front of the TV.

End of Part I

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