Why I decided to go to back to school at age 48

I’ve spent most of my professional life involved in visual communications, but that’s not what I studied as an undergrad (environmental education, at Hampshire College) because I didn’t even know what graphic design was then, and I was terribly intimidated by the “art students”.

By my late twenties I had taken a single life-transforming class at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in NYC with the well-known designer James Victore and was convinced this was my new focus. But I still felt insecure about my perceived lack of skills and experience so instead of pursuing grad school I enrolled at Pratt Institute, and two very stress-filled years later earned an Associate’s Degree in graphic design. Aside from one year working for a few different organizations in New York City (first book publishing, next a huge media group, then a small nonprofit), this was enough to set me on a path of nearly eighteen years of self-employment with my company, Stone Soup Creative.

My business has had its share of ups and downs. I was fortunate early on to participate in a design business incubator program but moved to rural central NY state before my 3-year stint there was completed. I was eager to move on, with the recent events of 9/11 burned in my memory, and as my husband began his climb up the academic career, we re-located to an old farmhouse in the Finger Lakes and not for the last time I became a trailing spouse.

It was difficult to maintain the same pipeline of business leads in the country, but still – it was New York state and the NYC sphere of influence was there. Opportunity existed if I was willing to network and establish new connections. I was able to do the 5-hr drive to NYC occasionally to maintain relationships with clients, although forging new ones in the immediate area proved more difficult, as budgets were smaller, there was not so much of a demand for professional, savvy design and the tight-knit community remained loyal to local businesses, not newcomers.

I moved again to a small, conservative city in the midwest and my world shrank even further. There were even fewer opportunities to meet people and make connections, and with less interest and demand for strategic, thoughtful visual communications, revenue decreased. Plus as an introvert I’m really not the most outgoing, charismatic personaIity – admittedly I’m a hard person to get to know. To overcome some of these challenges I expanded my skill set by investing in training to become a branding expert and thought leader, and developed a comprehensive process for organizations to develop an authentic brand, The Brand Recipe. I started doing public speaking presentations on design, marketing and branding, and found I really enjoyed facilitating workshops. Then I discovered graphic recording – this is when I capture what is being said at an event or meeting, working live as it happens, on a large scale, using color, words and pictures. I love this work. By listening, thinking and drawing I can help people make connections, feel more engaged with the content, and help solve a problem. I’ve also lately become enamored of design thinking methodologies. I wonder how all these interests intersect, and don’t have an answer yet.

@motherofcoonhounds posting about MFA on Instagram

If anything, I’m a realist. After four years in Indiana, I guess we are here to stay for a while. My husband is chair of the Art and Design Dept at our local state school, and as his spouse there are generous benefits for me to continue my education. Since I never got a master’s degree, now seems like a good time, for little cost. I am really fortunate to have the opportunity, but feel conflicted. How do I find the time? How do I prioritize? Is it worth the effort? Well, I enrolled this semester, part-time. By pursuing an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) I have the research opportunities to put the pieces together of my intellectual puzzle while simultaneously working on my graphic recording skills. It won’t be a typical course of study but I think I can make it work, and I’m okay with being the department’s most alternative student. Someday my husband will get appointed elsewhere and armed with an MFA – the terminal degree for professors in the arts – I could possibly secure a teaching position at the same time, thus saving me the difficulty of starting up my business once again in a new location.

I believe in the goodness of change, and I anticipate the opening of new doors.

What do you think – did I make the right decision? Or a colossal waste of time?

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2 thoughts on “Why I decided to go to back to school at age 48

  1. This is so good! Of course, you should if you can make the time and if it makes you happy. It is not necessary, my friend finished architecture, but he’s a full-time graphic designer now and he loves every second of it 🙂

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