What do you want?

By Stephanie Lillegard

“What do you want to study?”

That was one of the first questions, of course, Marylhurst University’s Admissions office wanted to know. The forms asking for a declared major wanted to know. The people who heard I was going back to school wanted to know. And I didn’t blame them. I wanted to know. For a long time, all I knew was that I wanted to go back to school, and this time I wanted an accredited degree.

My first degree was from a place that did not seek accreditation, and I was too young and too scared to realize why this mattered. This time, that was the only thing I knew. Accreditation mattered. Or – I should say – it is perhaps more accurate to say – this time, accreditation was the first thing I could own about what mattered. I had to do a lot of blogging to figure out the rest of it, and over the course of the six years it took me to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, with concentrations in English Literature & Writing, and Human Sciences, I blogged and blogged and blogged, trying to find an answer to the first question.


“What do you want to do?”

The first conference I had with the great and amazing Perrin Kerns began with the question I still couldn’t answer. I felt like an idiot. Shouldn’t a woman in her late forties know what she wants to do? I mean, if she’s going to take the trouble (and rack up the debt) to go back to school at this point in her life, shouldn’t she at least have a goal in mind? I couldn’t answer Perrin, but I thought she could help me keep looking, and so I took every class from her that would fit into my schedule. I had become like a hiker on Beacon Rock, breathing too hard in my efforts to be able to talk about why I would want to climb, hoping against hope that once I got up there the view would be worth it.

I needed (really really needed) something to hang onto, and it was Perrin who gave me a priceless hand hold. In an online course about literature, she posted, “Meaning isn’t a given; it is a process. It involves an interaction between the reader, text, author, culture, history, etc. There is great agency given to us in this demand for meaning.” I posted these words, snipped from a course forum, onto the wall behind my computer screen in my office. I made a Pinterest pin from them. I have quoted them dozens of times because they are the way forward when you want to know the answer to the question.

“What do you plan to do with your degree?”

As I got close to the end of Year Five of the total of six years it took me to complete this degree, I decided to stop waiting to be asked the question, and I started asking the generous, patient, encouraging instructors what they thought I should be doing with this degree. I had enough self-control not to ask the same person more than once or twice, but I asked more than one or two people. More than one or two professional academics. More than one or two instructors. After awhile, it became a kind of game. Would one of them, at least, refuse to answer me? Or give me some other answer? But, no. My demand for meaning had led me very steadily down the same path for long enough that they all said the same thing. “You’re going to grad school.” Sometimes they said this with, “oh stop goofing around,” in their voices, and sometimes they said it as if they were answering a pop quiz and I was the inquisitor. Sometimes they knew I didn’t really know the answer, and they put, “right?” at the end of it, but the answer was always the same. “You’re going to grad school.”

So that turns out to be the answer. I’m going to grad school. One instructor thought that I might want to take a year off to decide where to apply, and another instructor thought I might want to apply before I graduated, so that I would not lose momentum. I split the difference and applied to start in January of 2015. All of them said that I should apply to three, four, or even five grad schools, but none of them were paying my application fees, and so I applied to the two schools I wanted most to get into, and reserved the rest for another shot at it in a second round, if that became necessary.
Six years at Marylhurst almost cured me of using my advanced age as an excuse for anything, but one of my instructors let me know that the average age of a student enrolled in an MFA in Writing program is 39, and so I got past my fears, and I got past my confusions, and I applied, and I got in. I got in to both of them. And then, one more time, a Marylhurst instructor handed me what I needed. “Go with your gut,” he said. “Look at the faculty, read their work, and then just go with your gut.” He was right. That was the best way.

So, now, for once, I know the answer to the question. What do I want to do? I want to earn an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Pacific University’s low residency program, and I want to start doing this on January 8, 2015. Don’t ask me for more meaning than that.