Leggings as Pants

If you don’t live in a college town or have teenage kids, you may not have the fortune of knowing the nuances of all the fashion and lifestyle trends among the 18 – 22 set. I, on the other hand, as both an employee of and a student at a large midwestern university, have a front-row seat. This is a blessing and a curse.

I’m still young-ish enough that I can blend into a traditional college class if I dress the part, so on the one hand I try to gather enough information to show up in class and not be mistaken for the professor. On the other hand, I don’t want to get so caught up in dressing like I’m twenty that I start looking ridiculous to everyone else in my life.

I am fortunate enough to work in an office that doesn’t require formal business attire, so on the days I go to class I make a point of avoiding skirts and heels. In the winter I usually go with jeans and a sweater with boots or fashion sneakers. In the summer it’s jeans, a work-appropriate t-shirt and flats or sandals. If you think this all sounds perfectly acceptable and college-y, you’re right. I blend in, I look the part; no one usually finds me out unless I I get to know them and describe my situation.

This does not, however, mean I look like all the other girls in my classes. On the contrary. Dressing in jeans and a nice shirt is bordering on formal in the classroom. As much as I would love to be in a financial position to stop working and attend school full-time so I could graduate more quickly, let’s take a peek at what I might be wearing if my fashion choices were not tempered by the real world of eight-to-five office life.

If I wanted to go whole hog student, I would first and most importantly replace all of my pants with black leggings. This is the everyday uniform of college girls. In the winter, it’s difficult to tell them apart because the leggings are almost exclusively paired with Ugg boots and North Face jackets. Nevermind if your level of fitness should cause you think twice about your choice of leggings as pants. Everyone is invited to this party. I know what every girl on campus would look like if she were naked from the waist down and covered in black spray paint. And this knowledge does not enrich my life.

Did you forget your skirt? Did your shirt shrink? No one needs to see this much detail about your butt.

Did you forget your skirt? Did your shirt shrink? No one needs this much information about the intricacies of your butt.

The next staple of my student wardrobe would be a collection of slipper-like footwear. College students have no use for what most of us might call shoes. Everything is some variation on the slipper. Most include a fur lining. The exception would be flip flops in warm weather. Arch support or shoelaces are frowned upon.

What are these??

What are these??

Once comfortable with the leggings and slipper look, I might move on to the pajama fashions. Most commonly seen in the form of sweatpants and bed hair. If I were talking about college boys, I might be referring to actual gym pants and actual bed hair (as in, I got out of bed and didn’t look in the mirror before leaving for class, therefore there is a giant smashed area on the side of my hair that I am unaware of). But with regards to girls, the pajama fashions are an art. Sweatpants (often emblazoned with metallic words across the butt) are artfully draped half in and half out of the tops of Ugg boots. Does this sound overly critical? It does, but I assure you I’ve seen it enough times to know it is intentional. I would also have to learn how to do a “messy” ponytail. The ponytail that says “I just rolled out of bed and swept my hair into this adorable mess.” I’ve rolled out of bed and swept my hair into a ponytail. It isn’t pretty.

Left: Your sweatpants are a little hung up on your boots there. You might want to fix that. Right: I wake up with this adorable messy ponytail. And these pearl earrings too. Who knew?

Left: Your sweatpants are a little hung up on your boots there. You might want to fix that. Right: “I wake up with this adorable messy ponytail. And these pearl earrings too. Who knew?”

I will admit guilt to wearing certain college attire on weekends. Living in a college town makes it easy to get away with wearing slippers and yoga pants to the grocery store. I also, on several occasions, attended evening review sessions wearing jogging shorts and flip flops. Maybe on a couple of those occasions my hair was in a sloppy ponytail and still wet from a shower…maybe.

I’ll confess to wanting to fit in, to look young, to be “hip.” We live in an incredibly youth-centric society and it can feel good to “get away with” being mistaken for a college kid sometimes. It feels like a luxury to be able to walk the fine line between youth and adulthood. But the fact is I’m 31, soon to be 32. I am a professional with a full-time job. I’m not a college kid, not really. Slapping on some leggings and Ugg boots will not make me 20 again. But really – thank god for that.

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Remembering the Quadratic Formula

Before I started my engineering program, I had never taken a college math class before. I liked math, loved math in fact. I took advanced placement calculus in high school and got seven advanced placement credits on my transcript when I went to college. Extra credits that, as it turns out, allowed me graduate in four years with fewer electives. But as a bright-eyed freshman planning to major in English, I was herded through the basic university math placement test, told I was (surprise!) proficient, and sent to pursue my artsy, english-y, writerly future. (I did not, as you’ve probably guessed, major in English.)

I had fond memories of my high school math classes. Aside from a brief stumble in seventh grade, during which time I was busy fantasizing about boys and got a B in algebra (the horror!), math came easily to me. I was thrilled when my sophomore geometry teacher recommended that I move up from standard math to honors math the following year. Because of this promotion, I was able to take calculus senior year. I found it fascinating.

I used to tell my dad, a chemical engineer and fellow math lover, how much I missed math after high school. I actually considered taking Calc 2 my freshman year of college just for fun, but I hated to waste time and tuition money on a class I didn’t need. So I marched on, eventually landing in the studio art program, the land of folks who, in general, dislike math – more on that in future posts. I still thought about math fondly, and hoped that one day I would have a reason to use it again.

A pythagorean theorem pumpkin I carved once for Halloween, proving the obvious – that math is fun!

A pythagorean theorem pumpkin I carved once for Halloween, proving the obvious – that math is fun!

I graduated with my BFA, became a graphic designer, and traveled further away from all things math. It had been so long since I’d done math of any kind I started to worry that I would forget how to do it. At one point I even picked up a calculus review book, hoping to dust off my math brain and do some problems “just because.” Nothing much came of that, since even a math lover, I realized, has trouble finding the motivation to do math problems unless she has a reason to do so.

Fast forward to the days and weeks after I got off the plane and started to piece together my plan for actually getting an engineering degree. The advisor at the engineering program where I will eventually earn my degree suggested I take my prerequisites at the local community college, so began looking into classes. My advanced placement test scores were more than ten years old, and the community college only counted test scores that had taken place in the previous two years. The only way to avoid taking a pile of algebra classes was to test into Calc 1, the highest level class I was allowed to test into. I would begin classes in the fall. I had three months.

I brushed off the calculus review book I’d bought years before and began to panic when I realized I didn’t understand any of it. I was a little…a lot…rusty. I swallowed my pride and headed to the book store to flip through some of the “math for dum dums”-style books. I ended up finding a set of books in the “Demystified” series that seemed clear and well-written. I flipped through the “PreCalculus Demystified” book and realized, no, I don’t really remember how to do any of this. I picked up “College Algebra Demystified” and flipped to the first few chapters. No…didn’t quite remember how to do those problems either. Thoroughly deflated, I picked up “Algebra Demystified.” This was ninth-grade algebra. The material I remembered how to do ended about halfway through the book. I stacked all three books into my arms and lugged them to the register.

I spent the next three months working my way through examples, practice problems and end-of-chapter “tests.” I will be forever indebted to Rhonda Huettenmueller, author of those three books. Her books were so helpful; I would recommend them to anyone. If I ever meet her in person, I will buy her a cake…and balloons…and a bottle of expensive wine. She helped me get my math groove back.

These books – gold.

These books: gold.

I had to register for fall classes before I was able to finish my review. The only necessary class I could take that didn’t require calculus was Chemistry. I was able to test into the appropriate level of algebra to enroll for that class, knowing I would have to finish my review and test into Calc 1 before I could enroll for spring classes. I was only allowed to take the math placement test twice per year. The next test would be my only chance.

I downloaded precalculus exam review packets from the college website and studied them tirelessly. When I finished the review, I went into the testing center to take my placement test. I was literally shaking as I clicked the final “submit” button after completing all the questions. The score appeared on the screen immediately. I did it.

Of course this would only be the first of many times that I would be tested. The first of many times that I would need to prove, as much to myself as to anyone else, that I could, and would, do it.

Waking Up on a Plane

I made the decision to go back to school while I was asleep on a flight from New Orleans to Detroit. I woke up, head pressed awkwardly against the wall, sun streaming across my face, likely drooling, and thought, “I need to go back to school for engineering.” It may sound like I’m making this up – dramatizing a bit. I’m not. That is literally what happened.

This is not to say the idea came out of nowhere. I was working as an environmental graphic designer three years prior. My company specialized in the niche market of wayfinding signage systems. When you go to a big city or a college campus or a hospital – all the signs and the “you are here” maps that help you figure out where are and where you need to go – that was us. The work, while interesting and exactly what I’d hoped to do when I graduated from college, had become repetitive and was no longer challenging me. I wasn’t happy with the job and I was starting to worry that I wasn’t happy with my whole career.

This is the stuff! This sign is actually part of a project I worked on for a Utah university. Photo courtesy of Serigraphics Sign Systems.

To put it mildly, I’m not a quick decision maker. I compare, I analyze, I make spreadsheets. I think it took me six months to buy my car. That said, I needed some help with this big decision, you know, with what to do with my entire life.

I signed up for a few sessions with a career coach in the hopes that she would look me up and down, subject me to a few Rorschach tests and *poof!*, give me the verdict. She did not. I took a battery of career interest and personality tests, most of which suggested I’d be best suited for conventional jobs (office manager, accountant, plumber) or analytical jobs (engineer, scientist). Absent from the lists were artist, designer, creative of any sort. Hmph. I took my stack of test results and went on my way.

I eventually left the wayfinding company. I’d decided I wanted to get back into mainstream graphic design – print, identity, branding, publications. Lacking a mainstream graphic design portfolio after four years doing environmental work, I was thrilled to land a full-time job doing in-house design at the university I’d graduated from, in the same office I’d interned as a student. Another bonus – working at a university opened the door to go back to school if I decided I wanted to do that.

At first the work was exhilarating. I hadn’t had the opportunity to work on such a variety of projects in years. All my pent-up creative energy was gushing out and I was having a great time. My work had improved and I was creating a lot that I was proud of. I was building a portfolio. I was loving my work again. Thoughts of changing careers faded away. I wasn’t going to be just a good graphic designer. I was going to be a great one.

Jump for Joy

The honeymoon lasted about two years. The same frustrations started creeping in. My best ideas were rejected by nervous clients. Tight timelines and low budgets made innovative and eye-catching work difficult or impossible to implement. I wasn’t being respected as a professional, which was something I’d struggled with for most of my career. There are no right and wrong answers in the creative world. Only opinions, and I wasn’t great at selling mine.

At that point my portfolio was no longer improving. From the perspective of a new employer, staying any longer would have hurt my chances of being hired. If I wanted to stay in graphic design and make something of myself, it was time to move on.

I spent the next six months working tirelessly on my portfolio. As a print designer with embarrassingly little web experience, I spent hours watching online tutorials on CSS so I could design my portfolio website. I created business cards, made spreadsheets of design studios in Chicago, where I hoped to move. The pinnacle of my planning was the HOW Design Conference in Denver, where I would be travelling for work in June. I hoped to have my portfolio critiqued at their portfolio review and hand out a stack of business cards. I was ready to kick some butt…it was finally time to be not just a good graphic designer, but a great one.

Then in May, three weeks before the HOW Conference, I went to New Orleans to visit my cousin with my mom and my aunt. We spent several days eating crawdads, sightseeing and drinking too much alcohol. On Bourbon Street my mom was photographed posing suggestively with a taxidermied alligator. It was that kind of trip.

Bourbon Street – never a dull moment.

Bourbon Street – never a dull moment.

Five days later I woke up on the plane and thought “I’m going back to school to be an engineer.”

Two weeks later I met with an academic advisor. Three months later I went to my first chemistry class. I still have all those business cards.

I’m not entirely sure what happened on that plane. Had those career assessment tests been knocking around in my head for three years? Why engineering? Why on the brink of my job search? I have a few thoughts on that, but that’s for another day. I’ve got a whole blog ahead of me – welcome to Extra Credit Life!