Saturday, August 29, 2009

On going back to school

I told someone recently that I'm trying to decide between the Master of Science in Nutrition and Clinical Health Psychology program at Bastyr University and the Film and Video Communications program at Seattle Central Community College. She responded: "Wow, you sure have a wide range of interests!" I said: "If someone gave you a course catalogue and told you price wasn't an object, you could take anything you want, you'd have a hard time deciding." The truth is, we all have a wide range of interests; the tricky part is figuring out which ones to pursue academically, which professionally, and which avocationally.

I worry that studying film theory, for example, might negatively impact my love of film. I studied creative writing and Spanish in college, and by the time I had my B.A., I was ready to take a break from both. I never really came back to either area, even though I was obsessed with Spanish in high school and wrote poetry and fiction fairly regularly back then, too. I'm also not sure academic analysis is the way I want to look at film; I enjoyed being a film critic for the Weekly largely because I got to choose the level of diction and analysis for each movie, and because popular criticism seems more accessible (and, frankly, enjoyable) than academic articles and books. For me, the idea of becoming a film studies professor isn't beyond the pale, but it doesn't feel like one of my best options, either.

Seattle Central's filmmaking program includes some theory, but its emphasis is on production. I attended an info session last week that laid out the two-year curriculum and included talks by two of the program's main professors. One is a documentarian whose film Sweet Crude played at SIFF this year; the other didn't mention his body of work, but I liked his no-nonsense personality and his sense of humor. Both teachers stressed how challenging the program is, and that it's a great deal, financially speaking: $7,800 or so for six quarters of quality instruction. Renting equipment and studio space for a single day, one of the professors pointed out, might easily cost $1,300, the price of one quarter in the program. We watched a short film made by members of a previous year's class; the acting was surprisingly good, the writing was decent, and the cinematography and editing were impressive.

We also talked about the logistics of finding work after graduation. Both teachers admitted that graduates have to work hard to find jobs, and many of them are freelance gigs. But they balanced this sentiment with the notion that there's always some work, somewhere, for a highly skilled production person. I was dazzled by the info session, as I imagine many of the other people in the room were; the session was packed with the most diverse group of people I've been around in a long time. The program takes a team-oriented approach, placing students in small groups to work on production projects. Finding ways to work well with virtual strangers, we were told, is a common challenge in the industry, and the program tries to recreate that challenge from the start.

If I want to enter this program, fall of 2010 is my first chance. Students can only enter it in the fall, and no spaces remain for this year. (There's quite a waiting list in case anyone drops out; I decided not to bother including my name on it.) It's a full-time program, which means holding down a full-time job in addition isn't an option. (One of the professors said that even working 20 hours a week while in the program is a tough row to hoe.)

The Bastyr program is a horse of a very different color. Fall of 2010 won't work because of all the prerequisites I need to take before applying; 2011 is more like it. I'll need nutrition, chemistry, psychology, anatomy, and biochemistry, all but the last of which I can take at either Seattle Central or North Seattle Community College. (Biochem isn't offered at the community colleges, so I'd probably have to attend a proper university for it.) I just paid for two classes for fall quarter: nutrition and a general prep class for chemistry. The former will give me a small taste of what I'd be getting myself into if I decided to pursue the MSNCHP; the latter will enable me to take the required chemistry series, if I end up so desiring.

My decision to go back to school was the pretty direct result of a realization achieved in therapy: I keep waiting for something external to tell me which direction to go professionally, but it's impossible to know what will suit me and what won't without trying something. I can't try everything, varied interests or not, but I can try something. And two community college classes are a whole lot cheaper than a year of grad school. Might as well try a subject that interests me on for size.

Some people who don't know me well, or haven't known me long, are surprised by my interest in nutrition counseling. The fact is, I've knowingly struggled with eating and body image issues for 15 years. Even after my bout with anorexia nominally ended, I veered back and forth between overeating and self-starvation. Only in 2006, in Brooklyn, was I able to achieve a level of mindfulness (thanks to daily meditation) that allowed me to understand what healthy eating habits might look like for me. And only now, a year after joining the food-intensive Kibbutz community, am I able to recognize that I'm heavier than I want to be without completely melting down about it. (I credit meditation, life wisdom, and Lexapro for that.)

In the proverbial perfect world, I'd study nutrition, counseling, and filmmaking and would win an Oscar for a groundbreaking documentary on disordered eating. For the moment, I'm excited to be a month away from starting classes. Studying algebra and pre-calculus to take the community college math placement test was more fun than grueling, thanks to the lessons that 12th grade calculus class apparently branded on my brain. I think relearning chemistry as an adult, from a competent teacher (my 10th grade chem teacher wasn't), might be a great experience. And I expect to really like nutrition class. My sense of how the body uses food, and what foods help or hurt us in which ways, is shaky at best. While mindfulness is definitely a part of the healthy-eating equation, information is also key, and no matter what I choose to do in the coming years, I won't regret having taken either class.

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