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College Graduation and Grad School Decisions

After four or five years in college, graduation seems like the final barrier standing between you and your life, your chance to make a positive impact on the world. As graduation approaches, however, applications to graduate schools and job interviews turn this happy time to one of both anticipation and anxiety. After finishing my grad school applications over winter break and updating them with new honors and awards as they arrived, I received the final decisions regarding my applications yesterday. With these decisions, it seems like a great time to post an update on my life.

Finding My Passion

The most valuable thing that I’ve discovered at Drexel has nothing to do with engineering, but rather having found my passion for reforming the (public) education system. I pursued my degrees in engineering knowing that I would never be a bench engineer, but that I wanted the mindset, mathematical rigor, and scientific background that accompany such an education. Don’t get me wrong though, I love engineering, from phase change materials to DSP to AI to systems and control theory, and more generally from technology to design to sustainability to entrepreneurship.

My passion is designing environments that foster personal growth (i.e., learning). Although I couldn’t articulate it as such at the time, this is what I’ve been doing in Drexel Smart House since shortly after I started college. While there’s more money in big business and more entrepreneurship in tech startups, the biggest impact can be made in the public education system. I want to make an impact.

In fact, I’ve wanted to reform the education system since I was twelve years old, which is when I first read Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Only now do I realize this is actually possible —  requiring a lot of effort, patience, and economic/intellectual understanding to move beyond the traditional — but it’s going to happen and I want to play a part in achieving it.

Graduate School Applications

Applications? Well, not really. Just one. After completing two engineering degrees, I have found my passion for educational reform. I applied to the Learning Sciences PhD program at Northwestern, the first doctoral program of its kind and home to several excellent research centers and distinguished scholars in the field. Yesterday, I learned that I was not admitted to this prestigious university.

Why Northwestern? Why did I only apply to one program?

I was exploring computer science programs in the Chicago area, when I stumbled upon Northwestern’s Learning Science program and its Computer Science collaboration. Prior to this, I wasn’t aware this field existed, assuming that most developments occurred from the actions of independent thinkers and political players. From the program’s interdisciplinary themes to its pedagogy, I knew this was the program for me. Just to be sure, I checked similar programs at other universities in the area, and they were all much more traditional. From my experiences in the Drexel Smart House, and having casually read some of the work of Russell Ackoff, Sir Ken Robinson, Howard Gardner, and other popular scholars who call for a more radical reform, I knew that I wanted a program that would allow me to explore untraditional modes of learning from a systems vantage.

Northwestern was the only school to which I applied for two reasons: in preference of Chicago-area schools, and to maximize my chance of being admitted. Knowing that I want to live in Chicago, that I want to radically improve the education system, and that I could apply again next year if not accepted, it doesn’t make sense to apply to other programs. I’d rather work in a related area and hope to accomplish enough to be accepted if and when I reapply.

Post-Decision Thoughts

Obviously I wish things would’ve turned out differently and that I was immediately accepted, but with a top ten PhD program (accepting roughly eight people per year), you’re bound to hit some setbacks. When compared to the much more ambitious goal of reforming the U.S. public education system, this setback is minor — this is just practice for the one setback after another which is to be expected. As with any goal worth achieving, there will be obstacles, but rarely are they insurmountable.

Is it disappointing? Heck yes. It may even slow my progress. Although I’ve suffered a minor setback, my resolve is strong and the fires are still burning brightly. A university is a way to open new doors and create new opportunities, but it is not the only way nor is it always the most direct way. While Northwestern could help me move in the right direction, it is just a stepping-stone on a long, long journey.

I really appreciate everyone’s help and faith in me throughout this process. Everyone from friends and colleagues to mentors and Drexel administrators have supported me in this endeavor, and I owe each and every one of you. I’m truly humbled by the generosity of everyone who has taken the time out of their busy lives to provide support, advice, and help me take the next steps in my life. It’s because of you that I’m confident in my future, both in the journey and the destination. I look forward to continuing our work, building lasting relationships, sharing successes (and failures), and doing great things together.

To The Future

After graduating in June, I have a year before I can reapply; it’ll be the first time since preschool that I’m not enrolled in an academic program, and I hope to see what I can learn and accomplish. I’ve spent the last few years working on something tangible — Drexel Smart House — and its time for another exploratory phase. Careers trajectories today are non-linear and passions sometimes change over time, but as long as I’m making a positive impact I’ll be happy. As a mentor once told me, I should always be reading, writing, and creating something; this is especially true when experimenting to find your next tangible project. So the quick list for the next year or two is internships, diving into the Chicago startup scene, and my own small projects. As for now, I’m happy with where I am in life, and confident that I’m on a road that will take me to ever-more exciting and challenging places.

Posted in Ramblin' Thoughts.

3 Responses

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  1. Anna Dron says

    Fantastic post, baby.

  2. Cody A. Ray says

    Thanks, darlin. :)

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Northwestern Learning Sciences PhD Application (Statement of Purpose) | Cody A. Ray linked to this post on March 26, 2011

    […] (For more on my decision to apply to Northwestern’s Learning Science program and the resulting decisions, please see College Graduation) […]

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