I passed.

Twenty months of work – hard work – are behind me. Yesterday, I passed my research presentation, the final exam of sorts for my master’s degree. I can now say I’ve earned a master’s degree.

Let me recap how these last few weeks went down …

I attended another round of classes the first weekend in March – in addition to weekly assignments and papers, our cohort met once a month for classes on Friday nights and Saturday mornings – where our instructors announced we were to have drafts of our portfolios and research ready to share at our April class meeting. While the announcement created a sense of relief that the end was near, it also launched me and the rest of my cohort into a frenzy to wrap up those projects.

I spent the majority of my spring break in late March reviewing my work from the entirety of my graduate school journey and compiling my portfolio. As part of the portfolio, we were required to include at least two artifacts from each course we took throughout the graduate program along with a reflection, with each artifact, detailing why we selected the artifact for the portfolio; what we learned by writing, designing, presenting – or whatever it was we did – the artifact; and how it changed our thinking when it comes to working in higher education. … I spent most of my spring break week working at home, with a couple trips to the university library mixed in to bounce ideas off some of my cohort members and retrieve some documents I wanted to include in my portfolio.

From April 1 on, things moved into high gear. My week days mostly consisted of helping to get the kids ready for school in the morning and dropping Faye off at the daycare – except for the more chaotic “Faye Fridays” when Kates had to be at her school extra early for recess duty and I was responsible for getting Phoebe and Faye to their respective destinations; one of Phoebe’s preschool teachers dubbed those days Faye Fridays because Faye came with me to Phoebe’s classroom and all of the teachers and kids got to ogle at her. Then I’d do the daily work for which I’m paid at the university and at 5 p.m. – or as soon as I could, depending on whatever work projects I was doing – I would transition to my graduate work.

Sometimes I would pack leftovers from home to eat for dinner. But mostly I walked to the Student Union for a slice of Papa John’s pizza. Oh, I’m going to miss those nights of eating that goodness.

Then, I worked the night away in my office, churning out reflections, title pages and other components for my portfolio, while jamming to my iPod. It’s at this point that I’d like to offer a special thanks to Ben Folds Five, Ingrid Michaelson, Elliott Smith, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Matchbox Twenty and Sara Bareilleswho I have a big crush on these days – for helping me through so many of those late nights.

I became friends with the custodians who always came in by 11 at night to clean the office. If I could keep my focus over their vacuuming, I stayed. If it became too much, I packed up my things and headed home and continued working.

Whatever happened, my average bedtime the last three weeks was about 2 a.m. … Then I’d get up around 6:30 the next morning and do it all over again.

* * *

Phoebe began to figure out things were different and Daddy wasn’t around as much. While the fact that I was always “working” became a running theme, we also tried to explain that the work would be ending soon.

A couple weeks ago, Kates took the girls grocery shopping and ran into our friends Gina and Jeff at the store. Gina was well aware of the situation and graciously took Phoebe for the afternoon so the house would be a little quieter when Kates returned home and I could concentrate on my graduate work. Gina told me later that at one point during their afternoon together Phoebe sighed and told her I was “really busy with work.” But Gina assured her it wouldn’t be much longer.

This is how my home desk looked that particular weekend. Two screens. Books, papers and notes piled high.

It would all be over April 20, we told Phoebe. And so a countdown began at our house. From two weeks to one week and eventually days. … On Thursday morning we were sitting at the dining table and eating breakfast when Phoebe burst, “Daddy! Guess what!? Two more days until your work is done!” And when I came downstairs for breakfast yesterday morning, Phoebe jumped in front of me and threw her hands in the air saying, “Daddy! Today’s the big day!”

* * *

I attended our final round of graduate classes the first weekend in April and received positive reviews on the draft of my portfolio, even though I would make many, many more revisions before it was finalized.

But our cohort collectively drew a less enthusiastic response from our professors when we discussed the progress of our research projects. We had spent so much of the last several weeks focused on compiling our portfolios that we had largely ignored our research. Most of us, myself included, had completed a literature review and collected data, but still had to analyze the data and finalize the presentation of the results. Worse yet, a couple people still needed the university’s institutional research board to approve their projects – the initial step most of us completed months ago. And before we could make our final presentation to the panel this weekend, our research advisor had to review the draft and subsequently approve the final version.

With two weeks to go and the pressure mounting, I wasn’t exactly sweating, but I knew I had my work cut out for me. If I kept my focus and maintained the discipline I had exhibited throughout these last two years, I was confident I could finish strong.

I spent weekend afternoons working in my office and continued my late weeknights toiling on my research project. … With the amount of work I needed to do, I pretty much tuned out of the NCAA basketball tournament after Kansas was unbelievably knocked out, although I managed to keep up Wichita State's fun run. The extent of my viewing of this year's NCAA basketball national championship game consisted of turning on the live stream on my iPhone and sitting at my office desk to catch the last couple minutes after following most of the game on TweetDeck. Seemed like it was a great game.

On Tuesday, April 9, I met with my research advisor to have him look over the draft of my project. He offered a few suggestions, approved of my draft and indicated I was really close to having a finished project … I felt an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders that afternoon as I walked out of that building, and I wore a smile on my face for the duration of the five-minute walk across campus to my office building. I was so happy I could have cried.

* * *
That propelled me into this week. And what a week it was.

All the momentum I had going into the week was derailed Monday afternoon after the news of the horrific marathon bombings in Boston. I could barely look away from my social media feeds as I tried to finish up the work day that afternoon. That night, I couldn’t pull myself away from the TV news coverage. It was all so heartbreaking and, at the same time, maddening to see another act of senseless violence playing out in our country.

I didn’t touch my graduate work that night, and that ordeal –  from the first explosion Monday afternoon to the manhunt and ghost-town-like streets Friday in Boston –  is a story in itself. A chronology of events through good reads ...

a War Zone at Mile 26: ‘So Many People Without Legs’
a Runners try to make sense of chaos at Boston Marathon
a Hospital scene was like a battle zone
a At the finish of the Boston Marathon, a place of triumph becomes a place of horror
a Messing With the Wrong City
a In Grisly Image, a Father Sees His Son
a Yankees pay tribute to Boston
a News Media Weigh Use of Photos of Carnage
a F.B.I. Posts Images of Pair Suspected in Boston Attack
a News Media and Social Media Become Part of a Real-Time Manhunt Drama

As if the horror in Boston wasn't enough, there was a devastating explosion in Texas, someone sending poisonous letters to the president and the letdown of the failed gun legislation in the Senate. The Onion, as it does so often, summed it up adequately: Jesus, This Week.

* * *

Tuesday night, I slipped out on a lecture with a New York Times reporter and was back at it in my office. I submitted the final version of my research project to my advisor that afternoon and had turned my attention back to my portfolio, writing some of the last components and revising some others. The top goal for the night was drafting my leadership philosophy, a three-page-minimum document that was one of the portfolio requirements.

By around 9 that night I had generated a good flow of thoughts – four pages worth. I figured I was 15 to 20 minutes from finishing it when I logged on to the internet to check some information related to my paper. And that’s when things went horribly wrong. …

Now, last Sunday night, I downloaded some graphics from a website that I planned to incorporate in the PowerPoint presentation of my research. With all the annoying pop-ups on this particular website, I should have known better, but I proceeded with the download. … To cut to the chase, my internet browser started doing funky things Monday. And when I tried to access the internet Tuesday night, my laptop froze, I saw the blue screen of death and everything came to a crashing halt.

When I tried to reboot my laptop, I couldn’t get past the log-in screen. Every time I entered my username and password, my machine automatically rebooted. I tried again and again, but couldn’t advance.

In desperation, around 11 p.m., I texted two of our campus IT staffers and asked them to call me as soon as possible. One of them called, but after I explained the symptoms to him he determined there was nothing he could do until the morning. In the meantime, I tried running several system restores from various points, but all of them failed. … By 12:30 a.m., my computer was barely booting up and the situation was hopeless.

I went home that night fearing I’d lost everything. I slumped into bed and sent up what may have been the most heartfelt prayer of my life.

* * *

At 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, Tim the IT guy was at my office as promised. We were both pretty sure my computer was infected with a virus, and Tim was confident he could remove it and restore my computer without losing any of my files. … I left him to work his magic while I headed to a 9 o’clock meeting, and when I returned at 11 my computer was as good as new.

Disaster averted.

But I lost all of the work I had done on my leadership philosophy and had to start it again Wednesday night. … I trekked across campus to the Papa John’s for a slice of pizza and then back to my office to get to work.

It’s also worth noting on this night, that we were experiencing some relatively dramatic storms. Crashing thunder. Bright, streaking lightning. The whole shebang. … Admittedly, it probably seemed more dramatic given the state of mind I was in, that I was walking across a dark, heavily wooded campus and working high up in my castle-like office building.

I restarted and cranked out a portion of my leadership philosophy over the course of an hour. Then, I headed across campus again – in the storm – for a meeting of our cohort at the library. I almost didn’t go in favor of staying in my office where I could be more productive. But it was always nice to meet with my mates to get a peak at their progress – and, more importantly, to commiserate about trivial matters like how much work was left on our portfolios, our research, the inconsistent instructions we were receiving from professors, or the few hours of sleep we were getting. It was good therapy and after a half hour or so of that, I was ready to return to my office and resume my work.

I finished my leadership philosophy, and put the finishing touches on my portfolio. I was on my way.

Thursday night, I finished the PowerPoint for my presentation to the panel Saturday. And Friday night I finished the tri-fold presentation for my research.

I went to bed around 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Within 12 hours this hard-fought journey would be finished.

* * *

Bring on presentation day.

I made sure I set my alarm a little louder that morning to lower the risk of over sleeping. … I got myself cleaned up, dressed in my suit, ate a good breakfast and made sure I had all my presentation pieces. I was prepared as best as I could be and headed out the door.

As much as our professor tried to make jokes and help us loosen up before the presentations, there wasn’t anything anybody could do to break the nervousness of our cohort. … We took a group picture and then it was time to draw numbers. I drew the third spot, which was ideal. I could observe a couple of my classmates’ presentations, suck it up and take my turn, and then sit back and enjoy the eight presentations behind me.

My presentation went … well. I nailed the 15-minute target, and I answered all of the panel’s questions well. But, of course, after I sat down again and had begun taking in the other presentations, I started second-guessing my work. I should have increased the font size on my chart text. I should have taken more time to explain my variables. I spent too much time explaining the varied social media platforms.

I tried not to dwell on it. It was over, and I had given it all I could. If the panel told me there were things I needed to revise or correct, I would accept it and do what I needed to do.

When the presentations were finished, the faculty shooed us out of the room so they could compare notes, judge our portfolios and tri-fold displays, and come to a consensus on who passed and who didn’t. To wait it out, our cohort headed to a local bar and grill to commiserate one more time over lunch, reflect on what we’d accomplished and talk about where each of us is heading. Some of us are staying put, and others are using their new degree as a platform to look for new opportunities.

Finally, at about 1 p.m., our phones began buzzing with text messages from our professor. The panel was finished with their judging and we were to return to the campus to retrieve our portfolios and receive our results.

Going in, a few of us discussed a plan of getting our things and escaping without looking at the grades, allowing for any letdown to happen within the privacy of our vehicles. Instead, the faculty had stayed in the presentation room to meet us, approaching us one-by-one as we stepped to the pick up our portfolios and presentation items.

When I stepped in front of the table with my things, the lead professor was right there. No escaping for me.

“We were really disappointed in your tri-fold,” he said, pointing to my colorful portrayal of my research on social media engagement. “We expected more out of you.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or sarcastic. “Ok?” was the only response I could muster. Inside I was screaming, What is that supposed to mean?! What do I need to do?! Just tell me, did I pass or not?!

The professor continued. “But we were very impressed with your portfolio. This was very well done,” he said laying a hand on my binder.”

There was a pause. And then …

“You passed,” he said with a smile.

He embraced me for a hug, but I was still too stung by his initial comments to find much relief. What did he mean they were disappointed in my tri-fold?! It was colorful. It wasn’t overloaded with information or text. I had charts. I included only the main outcomes of my research. I had done everything the faculty asked. … Whatever.

I passed. My work is done. But Tte sense of accomplishment and realization that I have no graduate work left will take a long time to settle in.

* * *

Completing a master's degree is one of my proudest accomplishments. The most important of my professional career, for sure.

Growing up, graduate school wasn’t even a blip on my radar. Get a college degree and I’m set, I thought. … It wasn’t until I spent part of a summer taking journalism classes at the University of Georgia and listening to the advice of some faculty there that I even began considering the possibility of graduate school work in my future – but even then it was something of a fantasy.

What’s more, I wasn’t always the best student academically. My little brother always seemed to have the smarts in the family and usually came home with straight-A report cards. I earned my share of As -- along with plenty of Bs and Cs, and some Ds.

A few years ago, I watched Kates return to school and earn her master’s degree in reading instruction. I remember all those nights, too, of her attending classes every Thursday night, the papers, the research and the compilation of her portfolio. And, of course, “peachy keen.”

But it wasn’t until I landed this new opportunityit’s been 3 ½ years now but it still feels new – that the doors swung wide open for me to work toward this day. The chance to earn a master’s degree became one of my biggest attractions to the new job, and once the job was mine, it became one of my top goals.

Once the journey began, I refused to settle for anything less than what I was capable of producing. I worked harder for this than anything thing else I’ve worked for in my life – not that I haven't worked hard for anything before, maybe it was a new perspective as an adult, but it was really important to me than I did well. I put 100 percent into my reading and writing. My competitive juices kicked in, too, and a fire burned in me to submit a better paper each week than anyone else in my cohort. It paid off – I earned a 4.0 for my graduate coursework.

Yesterday’s presentation was the culmination of two years of intense work, sacrifices and many, many, many late nights spent studying and writing papers in my office. But I’m so glad I did it. … Because of the experience, I also have 10 new friends with whom I’ve bonded through this experience and I know we’ll continue to follow each other as our careers progress.

So what’s next? That’s a popular question now. And it’s often followed with Are you going to keep going?

The answers are I’m trying to figure that out, and It’s a real possibility.

First of all, we have no plans to relocate. Interestingly, a position I had been eyeing for years opened earlier this spring. Kates and I had talked about this very scenario as we were preparing to leave K-Town – that I’d put in a few years at the university here, earn my master’s degree and then take this new job, figuring it might open around this time. Upon learning it had indeed opened and doing a little research, Kates and I discussed it on a March Saturday morning in our kitchen – a conversation eerily similar to the one we had on an October 2009 Saturday morning in our kitchen. Only this time, there were no dreams to analyze, and we concluded we had no desire to try another adventure at this point in our lives. We are quite content where we are.

The opportunity to keep going and earn my doctorate is very much alive and in front of me, and I’ve got the confidence and motivation to go for it now more than ever. … I also want to tackle my longtime goal of writing a book.

At this moment, what I really want to do is return to spending valuable time with my girls, reconnecting with distant family and friends, and resuming my many hobbies that I was forced to put off in lieu of school work. Landscaping our yard, home improvement projects, researching my ancestry, watching baseball games, enjoying our favorites TV shows and catching up on popular movies, and, of course, reading and writing – for pleasure, not for academics.

I enjoyed my new freedom today by attending church this morning with our family and working in our yard this afternoon.

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