how college changed my life and going back to college

Can College Change Your Life?

My first semester of college was as struggle. I was an unhappy pre-med taking “dumb” chemistry and it was kicking my butt. My chemistry professor‘s lectures made no sense to me. He didn’t follow the chemistry textbook but talked on and on in an arbitrary way, working his way through the periodic table.

The assigned problems, however, didn’t reflect his lecture or the textbook. It turns out that his graduate students made them up. And, not surprisingly, the exams were a total mystery to me. It tested the concepts he taught but were never a regurgitation of what was presented in either the textbook, the lecture or the homework problems.

I was in deep trouble. I was used to being spoon fed: the lecture = the homework = the quiz = the final. There were no surprises in my not-so-great high school chemistry class. All necessary information was always provided to me including formulas.

My first homework assignment in college required a constant that was not in the glossary of the textbook. I totally freaked out.

“How am I supposed to do this problem?” I complained to the guy that I was dating at the time; he was an MIT chemistry major who was now at Harvard Medical School. He thought I was a big baby. (I was.)

“Just look up the constant,” he said in a way that he meant to be helpful but I found annoying. (Yeah, we didn’t last that long as a couple.)

“It’s not in my textbook,” I replied testily.

“Go to the science library,” he suggested.

The science library is exactly 5 minutes away from my college dorm. Not very far but that trudge across campus to the library to find the proper reference book to locate that constant took at least a half an hour. Plus extra time to complain to other pre-meds I knew that I saw at the library.

This seeking of knowledge, albeit reluctantly, was my first step towards self-learning. Real self-learning. My Chemistry 5A class continue to tortue me as I spent the semester in a state of bewilderment. Chemical bonding was my nemesis. My savior came by way of my freshman dormmate, Stan, who was taking “smart” chemistry and owned a book by Dr. Harry Gray from Cal Tech — Chemical Bonds: An Introduction to Atomic and Molecular Structure. This book changed my life.

No, I never became a doctor or a chemist. But I did end up passing Chemistry 5A thanks to Mr. Harry B. Gray from Cal Tech. His book actually penetrated my brain such that I was able to sort of grasp the logic between chemical bonding and molecular geometry. He made a very confusing topic both interesting and accessible to a non-scientific person.

But what really changed my life was this new-found confidence that I could “figure it out” no matter how challenging it might seem because, somewhere out there, there were resources to be found to solve whatever problem was festering whether it was in the form of a book, a document or a person.

It was a lesson that I would go on to build a company around.


I’ll have to raid our archives for another post but I found the application for our MacTemps trademark.

Two years later, two of my friends from that same freshman dorm and I started a company out of a dorm room based on the knowledge we gained using the very first Macintosh computer. (This was back in 1986, folks. Yes, I’m old.) That company morphed to a Macintosh staffing firm (MacTemps) and then into a global corporation that places creatives and marketers in 18 countries around the world (Aquent).

AquentOur best marketing reflects our sense of quirky sense of humor. Ok, maybe we are the only ones amused.

A few years after graduating from college, I happened to run into my old MIT/Harvard Medical School ex-boyfriend. He asked what I was up to and I told him about my career change-up as an entrepreneur.


“Are you paying taxes? Are you a ‘real’ company?” he asked me, incredulous that this person he knew; the one who could barely find her way around a science library in search of something as simple as a constant, could figure things out things on her own.

“Yes. Yes we are.”

Sometimes, it’s not what you learn as how you learn it. The beauty of a college experience is that it challenges you in ways you simply can not imagine. And it changes your life. You just don’t realize it as you are going through it.

How about you? Can you look back to a pivotal moment in college that changed your life? Please share!

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p.s. My dormmate Stan Pajka , the one in “smart” chemistry, is now a opthamologist in Ohio where he’s from. If I ever got Lasik eye surgery, I would fly out to Ohio to have him do it. We used to do hand steadiness tests in college for fun and Stan always won.

p.p.s. My MIT genius ex-boyfriend is now a professor at Yale School of Public Health. He was really concerned about saving the planet when I knew him; always reading The Economist and worried about the dismal state of public health in developing countries. It’s nice to know that he’s doing what he cares so passionately about. I hope he’s working on this Ebola thing.

how college changed my life and going back to college

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Western Governors University. The opinions and text are all mine.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom

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