How I Decided to Pursue Web Development (The Long Version)
(This article is long. You can find a shorter version here.)
For those of you who don’t know, Ries and I graduated from DePauw University. We were both creative writing majors—he wrote fiction and graduated in 2011; I wrote poetry and plays and graduated in 2013. When he graduated, he joined the military as an enlisted Marine. When I graduated, I had a graduate fellowship at the Prindle Institute of Ethics. That was the plan at least. But let’s go back a little.
I started DePauw as a bio-chemistry and pre-med student who had been selected as an elite group of science students—DePauw’s Science Research Fellows. My first semester of college was really difficult on me mentally. I had always been a person who succeeded in academics without much effort. I had been labeled “above average” in third grade. I tested well. “A’s” came easily to me. I was never the smartest kid, but I grew up thinking the students in my A&E (the equivalent of Gifted and Talented) classes were going to grow up to become the equivalent of today’s Steve Jobs, the president, or famous for their great minds.
When I got my first paper back from my 200-level History of Mexico course, I was horrified to see I had received a “C". When I met with the professor to ask what I could do to improve, he explained that a “C” was a good paper. His standard for an “A” was that it was publication ready. That explanation sent me on a bit of a tailspin. I was a pre-med student, after all. My GPA had to be competitive for med school admissions. I had never been average in my life, and I was starting to realize that I would have to fight my way to be just that.
I developed severe anxiety shortly after I started my first semester of college. Each Monday I would make a list of all of my assignments for the week. Each Monday, I would work from 3:00pm to midnight in an attempt to complete that entire list. Each Monday, I would fail, and it would bother me so much I wouldn’t be able to sleep and ended up running laps around campus until 2:00am, sometimes 4:00am. The lack of sleep led to depression, and less than eight weeks into the semester, I was on a slew of medication to keep me upright.
Despite being a science major, I ended up in a first year seminar, “Poetry and the World” and a college writing course. I had gone into my advisor’s office and thrown a fit about being in two English classes as a science major. My advisor laughed at me. When I got my first “A” on a paper, it wasn’t in my inorganic chemistry class, it wasn’t in my History of Mexico class, it was in my college writing class. I was in such disbelief, I took my paper to my advisor, infuriated.
“You got an A, what’s the problem?”
”Is this some kind of sick joke?”
”Professor Glausser is one of the best professors in the school. He wouldn’t give you an A if he didn’t mean it.”
I think I asked my advisor to read the paper, just to make sure I hadn’t received an "A" by mistake. But no, it wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t a mistake— it was “A” paper.
When it was time to register for second semester, I went to my advisor with a list of classes—I had all four years of classes mapped out for my bio-chemistry and pre-med majors, my research, and my graduation core requirements.
“But what classes do you want to take?”
I looked at the list of classes, and read some titles aloud. He laughed, printed out a piece of paper, signed it, and handed it to me. “Take this to the registrar when you’re ready.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a declaration for your creative writing major.”
“But I’m not going to be a creative writing major.”
“That’s fine, but just in case, you have your major declaration form.”
A week later, I took the form to the registrar’s office.
I was nominated and received an award for being an outstanding freshman writer second semester. And despite my intentions to double major in creative writing and bio-chemistry, the science bit dropped out entirely by the time I was a sophomore. I quit taking my anxiety and depression medication, and things seemed to improve from there.
By the time I was a senior, I was a creative writing and theater major, and I planned to go to Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts to train in classical acting. I just needed the money. (I was an actor and a writer, but had been told my one of my acting mentors that there was no point to writing anything, because it would never compare with what Shakespeare had written. *Eye roll.*)
I got a job as a barista (CLASSIC ENGLISH MAJOR) and opened a new Starbucks in Greencastle. I was only supposed to work twenty hours a week, but I ended up working 35+ hours a week because we were a new store and we were constantly understaffed. I hadn’t set limitations with my employers on my hours, and I didn’t complain about my hours because I was making money that would pay for my future education.
I hit a wall two weeks before the end of the semester—I had just finished cleaning up the space for a weekend Playwrights Festival that I had produced, and my friend found me sitting on a bench outside the theater. I don't know how long I had been sitting there, just staring. I told her, “I need to not be alone right now."
I was over-committed—both in school and work. I was a leader of multiple campus organizations, was working on my senior thesis, and I was struck with my first bout of writer’s block. I had to turn in an incomplete stage play for my final project in a Writing for Screen, Stage, and Television course. To add to this, I realized the amount of money I could make before I graduated would not be enough to attend the summer intensive workshop in Lenox, and I had missed the deadline for the MFA Creative Writing and Acting programs I wanted to apply for, because I had been so busy pursuing other things, my applications took a backseat.
I was incredibly depressed, because I felt I had messed up my entire life missing my window for graduate programs. My dad has a PhD in physical chemistry, and I had started out on a pre-med track. I always thought I would have at least one, maybe a couple advanced degrees. And yet I found myself at the end of my first semester senior year with no prospects for an advanced degree or a job.
I was able to rest and get my mind straight over the winter break. A boost to my ego was that one of my plays had been selected as a finalist for the American College Theatre Festival, so I attended the regional competition in January.
Later that month, I applied for and was offered a position as a graduate fellow. I was a good fit for the position, but it wasn’t a good fit for me outside of giving me a year to correct the mistakes I had made as a senior.
My last semester went well—I got my first 4.0 despite working three jobs, directing Shakespeare at a local high school ten hours a week, taking two extra classes, and having one of my plays produced as a main stage production.
By the time I graduated, I was a published poet, produced playwright, and an awarded writer.
I’m sure we’ll talk about this later in the year, but it was also this semester that Ries and I started dating. We were best friends and talked every day, but we had not seen each other in two years. The week I graduated, he surprised me with a visit to campus for my graduation, and ended up proposing (to the surprise of us both.) We decided to keep our plans for the next year the same, and I would probably move down to Georgia the following year.
A week later, we found out he was being deployed to Afghanistan in September. This was not good news for us, but we decided I should stay in Indiana and continue working in the graduate fellowship position I held. After attempting to do long distance for months, driving twelve hours to see him every couple weekends, and a delay on his deployment, we decided it was too much, and I resigned from my position.
When I moved to Georgia, Ries asked me to take two weeks off before I began applying to jobs. I thought this request was insane, but I was aware that I had a work addiction and after working consistently from age sixteen to twenty-two, I was starting to notice my self worth was too entangled with the amount of money I made. I agreed to take two weeks off. I ended up taking off much longer. Partly because Ries had a lot of required travel for his deployment training, partly because a remote position working for a family member didn’t work out, but mostly because I had no idea who I was or how to exist outside of a school system.
I was frustrated any time I completed a task or project and didn’t get validation from an external source. Sometimes I would pick fights with Ries because of it—for example, I’d clean the apartment, and he’d come in and comment on how nice it looked and how much he appreciated it, but that wasn’t enough. I was finally out in the “real world” and I didn’t know how to do basic things to take care of myself or my space: I didn’t know how to plunge a toilet, I didn’t know how to cook, I had no concept of macro-nutrients or how to fuel my body, I didn’t know how to budget our money properly…the list was endless.
When I started applying for jobs, I had no working resume, no real work experience, and when I applied to two jobs a week ranging from food service to writing positions, I didn’t secure an interview for five months—and I was offered a job at a Tapas restaurant as a server. I was so ashamed to return to food service as a college graduate capable of explaining Shakespeare to middle and high school students, but I had no other options. I wasn’t even qualified for teaching positions in Georgia, which is likely one of the worst states for public education.
I felt resentful toward my education, and the people at my university who had assured me that a liberal arts education was better than a state education and with my diploma in hand, doors would be flung open for me. I had been a rockstar at DePauw. That wasn’t my opinion. I had students, professors, and administrators tell me on multiple occasions throughout my time in college. The only place I found my education applicable was in video games, where characters were assigned tasks and rewarded for those tasks.
Later in the year, I was hired as a government contractor for a position that only required a GED, and that was a positive thing, because it was more consistent, higher paying, and I was able to work on base with Ries. When we moved states, however, I found that I was still not qualified for contracting positions as a writer, despite having a degree in writing and now a clearance. I ended up with a job as a substitute teacher at a private school, which was a lot of fun, but not something I wanted to do permanently. The school required I get a master’s or at least be in pursuit of a master’s before they could hire me as a full time teacher.
I was fortunate to have no student loans from my undergraduate degree, so I was really cautious about taking out any loans for any education, after I had been unable to secure any job that required a college degree. Taking out a loan for a job that paid $48,000 (Alabama’s average annual salary for teachers) seemed like a terrible idea. (Especially when the average salary for an entry level position for someone with an undergraduate degree is $48,400 according to this article.)
According to LinkedIn, some of my smartest peers from my elementary school class had become teachers, and while I admire the people who dedicate themselves to teaching the younger generations (I’m looking at you, Meredith), I couldn’t help but thinking, What a waste. We weren’t prep school kids in a big city. We’d grown up in rural Indiana and attended public school. I had imagined such big things for them, and according to LinkedIn, they were just normal people who worked 9-5 at schools, or banks, or in cubicles. They probably went home and watched Netflix like we did. And that was life. That was it.
This wasn’t the first time I had considered taking out a loan for another degree either. After graduating, I had considered getting a degree in marine biology—there aren’t many jobs and the pay isn’t great; massage therapy—but neither Ries or I really felt comfortable with touching so many naked people; sonography/radiology tech—which paid well, but I was nervous about the electromagnetic radiation exposure; I had applied for Creative Writing MFA programs in 2016 and was rejected from Iowa, Cornell, and UT Austin; I had applied to and been accepted to nursing school in 2016, and didn’t go based on a feeling and the feeling ended up being correct; I had looked back into going to school to get the rest of my pre-med requisites and applying to med school—but Ries was working as a contractor which was incredibly unstable and not conducive to setting down roots anywhere for four years of school.
Nothing really seemed like a good fit for me. I think a lot of people feel that they are born during the wrong time period. As a poet and playwright, I definitely felt that way. (Send me back to the 1800’s and I’d be poppin’.) But it was something more than that. I felt like I was fundamentally broken as a person. I felt everyone else was born with something I was missing, and that I was not compatible for what life, in this time period at least, required of me. I wasn’t depressed about it, I just accepted it as reality, and figured that I would just stay at home and work on whatever suited me until we had kids, and then I’d be a stay at home mom…and after that, I didn’t know what I’d be. Maybe I would just evaporate. Ries didn’t believe that, but he supported me doing whatever made me feel best, and applying for jobs and MFA programs was making my self worth creep to new lows.
A lot of things happened in 2017.
I substituted the same senior class quite a few times. There was one kid in class I really did not like. He slept through most of the classes and talked endlessly about how if everyone moved to California their problems would be solved. One day toward the end of the year, he went through his classmates and criticized where they had chosen to attend college. I finally butted in and pointed out that where his peers chose to attend college was none of his business.
That opened up a can of worms.
My least favorite student had started working his last year of high school because his family experienced financial hardship. He worked late at night, which explained why he slept through class. He had stopped doing his homework, because his homework wasn’t making money, and his grades had suffered as a consequence.
His GPA was lower than the expected average at his dream school, and when he looked at the tuition, he decided not to apply because he didn’t want to bring more financial burden on his family. He applied to a state school and was given a full ride athletic scholarship. He accepted, and yet, he felt he had ruined his entire life, because he was attending the wrong school. He had let down his family, who had worked so hard to send him to a private school so he could get into a great college, and he had wasted the opportunity. He would never accomplish his goals, because he had worked to help his family. He said all of this in front of his classmates. I sat him down at my desk and talked to him about different options, assuring him that it was never too late to change things.
Within a month of that experience, Ries came home from work and said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.” I was eight months pregnant. We lived in the nicest apartment in town. He made a six figure salary. We were talking to a realtor and looking at four bedroom houses. We were going to have a baby soon. We had a plan.
But we were unhappy. I had noticed Ries acting less and less like himself in the previous year, and I thought he was just nervous about the pregnancy or the prospect of being parents. But I was wrong. He had reached most people's career goals, looked around, and thought, "This is it? This is the rest of my life?" The instability of contracting added to it: he was in constant fear of losing our only income, and losing the life we had.
Ries had a G.I. Bill from his enlistment in the Marines, and he wanted to use it. If I had not had the experience I had with that student the past week, I may not have reacted as well as I did. We came up with a plan, acted on it, and shortly after that, Ries was accepted to University of Oregon (betcha didn’t know that!) and Indiana University in April 2017.
Two weeks later, half of Ries' office was sent home. “We don’t have money to pay you," the company told them. We were lucky, and Ries was able to work until we moved to Indiana in August.
There were a couple ways Ries’ return to school affected me. 1) I would have to find a job to support us while he went to school. 2) We agreed that I would start school (of some sort) in August 2018, when Gus was one.
Gus’ birth had been extremely traumatic for me. Alabama is rated in the top five worst states to have a baby, and that was very apparent from the care I received. Because of this, combined with my previous desire to be a doctor, I very seriously considered becoming an OB/GYN. But I had two major concerns: 1) The student loan debt I would acquire in the process 2) The inability to hit pause on my education for about ten years. I would be around 37 before I would start making money, before I would have any say in where I would live, before I could realistically have another child. And losing ten years at this stage of my life just wasn’t worth getting an M.D.
So I started pursuing the nursing idea again. I applied to complete pre-nursing courses at Ivy Tech. It seemed like a good option. Some of my credits would transfer, and I would get an Associates in Nursing for about $14,000 in two years. But when I got my acceptance letter, I felt nothing. At this point, it was Fall of 2017. I had also started working in hospitality. I was excited and thought I would be a good fit for hospitality. (You can read more about what happened with that here, in our 2018 Recap.)
After about eight months, I came home one day from work and told Ries, “If I keep doing this, I’m not sure there’s going to be anything left of me by the time you’re done with school.” We sat down and talked about my strengths and what I wanted from my ideal job, and he said, “You’re not going to believe me, but I think you’d be a good back-end developer.”
Out of desperation, I started experimenting with programming languages through Codecademy, Grasshopper, and started some courses on Udemy. It wasn’t something I was good at—as a matter of fact, I had no idea what programming actually was until I started a lab on Codecademy. We had friends who were programmers from Ries’ time in the military, and I remember there being an organization “Women in Computer Science” at DePauw. But despite growing up essentially with the birth of the modern internet and social media, I didn’t know what programming or Computer Science was until I started in 2018.
Later in the year, I saw an ad on Instagram for a free web development bootcamp prep course through the Flatiron School. This was not the first time I’d heard of Flatiron School though—I have followed Karlie Kloss from the beginning of her modeling career, and she was also a student at Flatiron before developing Kode with Klossy, a code camp that teaches teenage girls to program. I worked on the bootcamp prep course, applied in June, and was accepted in July with a Women Take Tech scholarship. I broke down crying when I got my acceptance email. I was so happy, and it felt right.
I started the self-paced online Web Development course in mid-July.
I’m not good “naturally good” at programming the way I was naturally good in K-12 education or in writing. I don’t think programming comes naturally to anyone, but some have a better mind for it than others. (Ries took several classes on it, has a certification in a language or two, and tried teaching himself for a couple years. It just doesn’t make sense to him.)
When it clicks for me, it really makes sense, but it takes time to get there, and it requires work, asking questions, and risking looking like an idiot. The good news is that even the most knowledgeable developers/programmers/coders have to constantly learn new things to stay up to date. Things are constantly changing—programming languages are waxing and waning in importance all the time. Learning to program isn’t like a conventional education where you go to school and then your learning is over. It's an ongoing project, and I think that's what learning really is—the ability to continuously assimilate new information into what we already know.
As I was writing this article, I realized the current education system doesn't teach that kind of learning. It didn't teach me how to learn—it taught me to do whatever I had natural talent to do and to give up on things I didn't understand, areas where I needed improvement, areas I learned to avoid because they would drag down my GPA.
Flatiron doesn't have grades. There's no way to fail the course. You could quit, sure. You could likely be booted for academic dishonesty (copying the work of another student.) But as long as you complete the course, you will pass. There are five projects you have to build from scratch, and your ability to do so is proof you have learned the material you studied. And once you have completed the course, you're equal with those who also completed the course. There are no GPA's to compare to see who passed better than whom, because ultimately GPA's measure nothing. They indicate nothing about who you are, your work ethic, your ability to do your job, or your ability to be a functioning adult. Failure is just an obstacle to work around. But an “F” is a stopping point.
I mentioned my struggle with mental health in this article. It's not something I talk about openly very often, but I wanted to include it because it's relevant to my career journey. I have been suicidal a couple times in my life. I don't think it's any coincidence that I stopped suffering from depression after I left college. I've survived my husband being deployed, being ostracized from an entire side of my family, being cut out of friend groups, family death, family trauma, moving multiple times, and having a child, all without suffering from depression. Occasional anxiety, yes. But life-threatening, stuck in a deep hole I can't claw myself out of, unable to see reality for what it is, kinds of depression, no. I was very angry last year when I was working in hospitality. But these days, I can confidently say that I am the happiest I have ever been, because I am in pursuit of a certificate, a career, and a life I am excited about, without fearing I'll make one mistake—have one bad exam score, one bad paper, or one Calculus class—that tanks my entire future.
I know I have a lot more to say about the education system and my Flatiron School program, but I'm going to save those for another time.
Thanks for reading, and don't hesitate to reach out if this article hits a little too close to home.
All photos used were taken by Amanda, or taken and given by friends or family.