From Iowa to Oregon: My Journey in Higher Ed

I am a product of my environment: physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. As soon as I realized the power my environment had on me I began to see the adjustments I wanted to make to alter my trajectory. Rather than reacting to my daily to-do lists, status meetings, and solving mundane problems that more than likely weren’t my own I began putting my energy into finding spaces that were conducive to who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live.

My environment provided me my first major rejection early in life; I was in the fourth grade. My best friend came to school one day and didn’t sit by me at lunch. On the way to recess I caught up with her and asked what was wrong. She narrowed her eyes at me and said matter-of-factly, “My mom says I can’t hang out with you because you’re not popular enough,” and ran off to join a group of classmates. Experiences such as this one have motivated me to develop what some might call a thick skin, as well as an understanding that people change, and not always how you’d expect.

Growing up during the Internet boom of the 90s coincided with major shifts in how our society operated, not that I was paying attention to the world outside of my small, Midwest farming town. Now I find it fascinating to consider the evolution of social norms during my most formative years; what “hanging out with friends” looked like, how to look for a new job, or even the ways we notify each other about the death of a loved one. As a direct result of my environment, I Google everything and scrutinize the results, I’m really good at avoiding people in public, I don’t buy shoes in-store because I can find them cheaper online, and if I’m not mindful I might spend more time taking photos than enjoying the view. Becoming aware of how things have changed during my lifetime has made me more aware of how I want to let those changes affect me.

Just before I graduated high school I learned not everyone was asking, “am I going to college?” like I was and instead they were asking “which college should I apply to?” After moving away from home and having a very uncomfortable conversation about how student loans work with a new roommate - I told her I couldn’t go out to eat because my student loan disbursement check hadn’t come in the mail yet and she asked me why I needed a check to go out to eat - it was clear there was a lot about this world I did not know. This experience caused me to start paying special attention to how society operates around money, gender, and race. Not long after, I was questioning everything to challenge the status quo. My environment had changed and so did I.

My father made it his goal to instill a healthy work ethic in me because it’s important to him that his children learn the value of a hard day's’ work and could afford the things we need. After my mom started working at a bank she taught me how to balance a checkbook and file my taxes. And due to my environment I’ve consistently held a job since I was fifteen. I spent summers mowing lawns and painting vacant apartments before the new tenants moved in and learned some useful skills along the way. For a short time in college I conducted political surveys as a telemarketer. I only lasted two weeks before quitting because I couldn’t handle the verbal abuse from the people I was calling. This taught me to be kind to someone when they’re doing their job because the only reason they might be doing it is to pay the bills. After college I spent a couple years managing a customer service line for credit card issuer. I gained an unhealthy amount of weight because I developed a snacking habit to alleviate the stress from being yelled at by frustrated customers all day. This taught me that the majority of that company’s clientele hadn’t learned how to manage their money or their emotions and these two skills were clearly necessary in life. Needless to say I don’t miss any of those jobs but I do reflect on how the environment they provided has made me who I am: strong, patient, and resourceful.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I never met with my academic advisor in college. If a student I was working with now said that, I would schedule the appointment for them and walk them to their advisor's office myself. But I have a tendency to not ask for help and prefer to do everything on my own. Several years after graduating from college I scored an job opportunity working with honors students at a major research university. I ended up learning more from my time there than I did during my own post-secondary years.

I had found myself in an environment where seeking truth to serve a greater good and the process of self-discovery were both encouraged and celebrated. Soon after starting I began feeling like I failed to take advantage of my own college experience. I agonized over everything I missed out on: student orgs, social events, scholarships, research opportunities, study groups, volunteering, and who knows what else. And then I remembered all the reasons why I did college my way: I worked 20 hours a week, I traveled home almost every other weekend, I was a first-generation college student (which at the time I didn’t even know was a thing) and no one from the university, not even my academic advisor, tried to engage with me. Going through my own process of self-discovery made me learn to be kind to myself. Over time that gave me the confidence I needed maximize on every opportunity I could to take on a new project, learn a new skill, or work with someone new, and by doing so I gained even more confidence (and experience) to propel myself into a brand new career at a university 2,000 miles away (Go Beavers!) just seven months ago.

There have been times in my life where I felt like I was behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler with a blindfold on and the pedals switched. Because of my environment I’ve learned how to become my own MacGyver in a way. Other times all I can do is pull my knees in tight before I tuck-and-roll, and every once in a while I decide I’ve had enough and rip the blindfold off. I believe you have to let self-compassion outweigh hindsight to accept what is, move forward, and make life what you want it to be with what you’ve got. If you’re unhappy, feel stuck, or directionless take a look at your environment, make a few changes that support who you want to be, and see what happens. And remember, not all environments are physical - a small adjustment to your mental, emotional, or social environment can change everything.


Jess Waldschmidt is the Marketing Coordinator for OSU's Extended Campus. She is also volunteering with the OWHE Education Committee, a crucial part of OWHE Education initiatives! You can reach Jess by emailing her at 

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