My college and career preparation process was one of trial and error. Heavy on the errors. I was one of four children within my generation who went to college – the first four from either side of our family tree. The high school my brother and I graduated from was geared toward moving kids into college. That was why my parents moved into that particular town. As I mentioned before, I didn’t feel like I fit in with that school system and I took advantage of the fact that there were so many of us that it was easy to fall through the cracks.
Late in the game, my father and I had one of “those” conversations, and I decided that I should attend college. I made a half-hearted effort at playing catch-up on the process most of my friends had started a year before. My grades were OK. Fortunately, my SAT scores rocked. My guidance counselor was shocked. He gave me a list of schools that he thought I could get into and cut me loose. The list included The University of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Case Western Reserve, West Virginia University and The University of Georgia.
In September 1972, I arrived on campus at The University of Georgia in Athens, GA (UGA), ready to begin the pursuit of a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. I had done well in chemistry in high school. I was good at math. I was actually better at math than my grades in high school would have indicated, but that’s a different story. I had spent years watching Hawaii Five-O, and I wanted to be the guy in the crime lab. I wanted to solve big important crimes. I wanted to put the bad guys away by identifying microscopic amounts of stuff that would tie them to the crime scene. I wanted to be Che Fong.
UGA had an interesting policy regarding advisors. If you were just bumbling around looking for something to major in, you got an advisor from a pool of professors who might be able to help. If you had declared a major, you got an advisor from that department. I met with my advisor a couple days before classes were to begin.
“So, chemistry? I suppose you’re trying to get into med-school.”
“No, I want to be a chemist.”
“What kind of chemist?”
“I want to work in a crime lab.”
“Why on Earth did you come here?”
Dumb look on face.
I could tell that reasons like “it was far from home,” “I had a friend who was also coming here,” “it was the coolest school I had been accepted to” “I wanted to be part of SEC football” weren’t the kind of answers he was looking for. He wanted an academic reason. I had nothing.
He went on to explain that to succeed in a crime lab, I would either need to go to medical school and become a pathologist, or I would have to get a graduate degree in forensic chemistry. Forensic chemistry sounded good, I told him that’s what I wanted. Then he explained that the only schools (at that time) that offered advanced degrees in forensic chemistry were located in the north, where I had come from. He added:
“Northern graduate schools are prejudiced against southern undergraduate schools in general, and in this university’s chemistry program in particular.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you will never get into graduate school in forensic chemistry with a BS from here. You need to transfer.”
“Transfer? I just got here. I haven’t even started classes yet.”
“It’s not so bad, you can complete one year here without losing much credit. You should have gone to Pitt, they have a graduate program in forensic chemistry.”
I felt so inept. I knew that I hadn’t paid as much much attention to the college selection/application process as I should have. I knew that I had been a little more concerned about the campus I’d be living on instead of things like, oh, my future. I had been accepted at the University of Pittsburgh, but they wanted me to start at the Titusville campus and then transfer to the downtown Pittsburgh campus in my junior year. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go somewhere for four years. I wanted to go to a big school, not a regional campus of a big school. Besides, the nickname of the Titusville campus was “U Pitt Tit” and who wanted to be part of that?
My advisor stepped up and saved the day. He helped me rearrange my schedule so that I would be taking mainly science and math courses, courses that would transfer. He helped me find a school to transfer to – West Virginia University. He explained that while technically in the “south” i.e. below the Mason-Dixon Line by a mile or two, the school’s chemistry program was highly regarded.
This was the first of three wonderful pieces of advice that I received along the path to employment. This series isn’t about my education, it’s about taking advice, trusting people and gratitude.