Education in the USA Oh my!?

After finishing my O-levels at Stonyhurst college, I returned to the United States where my parents were living at the time. Well, actually my mother was residing there while my father had gone off to work in Ethiopia. I was still 16 at the time which in the United States is considered rather young to be attending university. But I had an interesting revelation when I went to Westminster college in order to talk to the admissions department. Westminster College is a small liberal arts college in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was in fact my mother's alma mater, and she did have a contact there in the admissions department. I had no idea about entrance examinations or the qualifications for entering university in the United States. And it must be recalled that the only educational background that I had that was documented, was my time at Stonyhurst College and my O-levels. There was a certain amount of going back and forth with the admissions person, but finally, as soon as they understood that I had taken and passed 10 O-levels in England they immediately said “Oh! No problem, come right on in.”. That was my first indication of the disparity between the education levels of the United States and England.

University was an interesting experience for me in many ways. This is my first time in the United States as a conscious individual living here and having to appreciate the culture. Because it truly was brand-new to me for all intents and purposes. And it didn't help that I was at least 2 to 3 years younger than most of the people who were going to school. What I ended up doing for the most part was becoming part of a circle of friends who were all people who were in general 10 years older than me or more. I just got along better with them. I certainly had more life experience and exposure to the world than any equivalent person my age just fresh out of a high school in the United States. That fresh out of high school crowd, badly as I wanted to be able to assimilate with them, I had no chance. They lived in a completely different world. I had nothing in common with them at all.

Prom King and Queen? What the hell were those? Football? Team sports and the fanaticism that accompanied them? Kind of moronic. And no, I’m not being hypocritical. I thought the same of football hooligans in England. I never joined a fraternity either. They seemed pointless. Thank god I didn’t live in the dorms. And – my first time in a co-educational environment. That was a shock too. Suffering from a severe case of acne kind of meant that was a non-issue for me though. Didn’t, however, prevent me from being frustrated.

And I ran into the typical faux pas that one might when speaking British English amongst colonials. The first time I asked for a rubber in class (meaning a pencil eraser) was hilarious to all but me. And if that sounds elitist, sarcastic, and humorless ... it was meant exactly like that. I have little patience for intolerance and being culturally blind. And it took a few months before I picked up enough of the local speech patterns to blend in. So incidents like that were not uncommon. Not mention arguments with professors because they accused me of incorrect spelling.

I initially decided to major in accounting. Well my first few weeks of an accounting class cured me of that. Which is funny, because now, decades later, I actually appreciate accounting quite a bit. I actually enjoy the numbers. However, at that point, I had my mind firmly fixed on a military career and all I really wanted to do, was get university out of the way, go back to England, to Stonyhurst College, finish my ‘A’-Levels, and then go in to the Royal Parachute Regiment as a pathway to the SAS.

To that end, after considered perusal of the course curricula, and studying the requirements for graduation, I decided that I would double major in math and computer science, and take a minor in physics. And I figured out that I could probably do this in about 2 1/2 years. Provided that I went to the summer and interim semesters and took a full class load every single time a semester was in session. Why did I choose those three? Because there was a lot of overlap in the requirements for those majors and I found out very quickly that I really had a knack for Computer Science.  But of course, that left me no time for socializing. Not to mention that even by the time I graduated from University I was still underage for drinking, although in true government fashion there was no barrier to my joining the military and getting killed at that same age. That has never made any sense to me. But not being of drinking age prevented me from being able to easily go out to bars with students who were legal to partake.

My friends, as I mentioned before, were older people, most in their late twenties or early thirties. Five or six of them were Iranian. Poor guys. They were devastated when the hard liners revolted in Iran and the U.S. Embassy hostages were taken.  But it never occurred to me to not stick with them. I was undergoing significant culture shock being back in the states and I felt more comfortable with them than anybody else.

But, again, I viewed this (being in the USA for University) as an ordeal to be gotten through so I could get back to England and enter the military. And my schooling in England had helped. Although cumulative GPAs came as a little bit of a shock to me once I realized how they worked. But I did OK. I managed to make my schedule of finishing in 2.5 years. And was able to do so with a fairly respectable GPA of 3.3 (I think). And thanks to a close friendship with the Registrar, when graduation time came, I skipped the graduation ceremony and was already on a plane on the way to Ethiopia. But that is another story. I am not a fan of meaningless ceremonies.

I find it mildly amusing that I got three sealed copies of my transcripts from the school. And not one time in my professional career did anybody ever ask for them. I finally shredded them a few years ago, during a cleaning up of my files. I think I may still have the diploma somewhere. Well, that is a comment on how important I think that is.

And I never went back to England. The British Embassy turned me down flat when I applied to get into the British military, saying that I wouldn’t assimilate. I was young and absolutely crushed by this. And I ran into a guy who asked me “Have you ever heard of Special Forces?” … and to cut a long story short, that was how I began my time in the U.S. military. My father was furious. He was a WWII vet and loathed the military. But that too, is a story for another time.

So from university, and more or less educated, and into the military. Ah … life.