On Re-entering the Hallowed Halls of Academia

Ever since I quit my job in April 2009, I have been toying with the notion of studying Economics. Before my kids came along, however, I was extremely tied up doing all the things I didn’t have the luxury of doing when I was working full time, like travelling without counting leave days, taking afternoon naps, checking Facebook, going to gym, getting my nails done and shopping at 11am on a Wednesday morning. In short, there was simply no time study. No time at all. There was no way I was going to choose a tutorial on marginal costing over a cruise on the Peruvian Amazon.

And then my beautiful kids came along and now a romantic cruise in search of pink dolphins in the Amazon seems about as likely a trip to the moon. Being able to take a sabbatical before having children was possibly the greatest gift my husband could ever have given me. And having the opportunity to enjoy the first few years of motherhood free from the stresses of the workplace is something I am immensely grateful for.

But tonight I will attend my first university lecture – the first step in a journey towards re-entering the working world in some shape or form.

In November last year, when The Prince was four months old, I took myself off to Wits Plus (centre for part-time studies) to hand in my application for 2014. When I started at UCT in 1998 I was more worried about what to wear to class and whether the drunken words of “fresh meat!” being bandied about in a Rondebosch bar were being directed at me or not. The administrative details of actually registering were a very minor priority in my life at the time. Now I was returning to university as a…ahem… mature student, concerned only with being accepted for my choice of subjects. I had diligently prepared my application pack exactly according to the university’s specifications. I had noted that I needed sign-off from a certain member of the Economics department, but an e-mail sent to the lecturer in question, requesting such sign-off, had gone unanswered for weeks. On the day of application, I was sent by the Wits Plus staff to track down this lecturer in the Commerce building. As I set off, I wondered whether I looked like those mature students I used to see sticking out like sore thumbs on the UCT campus. And then I was addressed as “Ma’am” by a student I approached for directions and I had my answer.

I finally found the office of the lecturer I was looking for. There were many names on the door and each name was accompanied by a weekly sliver of office consultation time: for example: Tuesdays from 12:30 to 2pm. I was in between breastfeeds, eager to get my application in on that day and just praying that I would be able to sweet talk this man into signing my form outside of his usual office hours.

If only I could find him.

A polite knock on the door yielded one lone voice seated at a desk in a sea of empty desks. Of course, it would have been too coincidental if he had been my man, but at least I could ask him where to find said lecturer. Alas, the colleague did not know his whereabouts but suggested I e-mail him. I told him that I had done so many weeks ago but had received no response. Only then did was I told that, in fact, he hadn’t been seen on campus “for weeks”. In short, I wasn’t going to track him down between breastfeeds. I was directed to the office of the Economics co-ordinator instead.

After getting somewhat lost again, I found myself outside the co-ordinator’s door. I could hear him on the phone which meant that he was in – phew! While I waited patiently outside his door, I had plenty of time to study the very detailed process flow diagram he had designed for the channeling of Economics queries:

The Hallowed Halls of Academia
The Hallowed Halls of Academia

I decided to feign ignorance and did not attempt to plug my query into his process flow chart, fearing it would direct me elsewhere. When I could hear that he had finished his phone call, I knocked on the door. He barely looked old enough to drive but he knew alot more than I did when it came to applying to study Economics. He pointed out that if I intended to take Economics to third year level, I would need to study Computational Maths and Business Statistics. This was news to me, but I was glad that he had brought it to my attention. Since my brief interaction with him thus far had been positive, I decided to ask him a question that was fairly central to my long term study plan: would I effectively hold a major in Economics if I completed the course to third year level, since I already held an undergraduate degree?

Before opening his mouth to respond, he looked at me pointedly for what felt like hours in the way that people do when they want you to know that you’ve asked a really, really stupid question.

“Here’s the thing,” he said: “Wits Plus doesn’t award degrees. Faculty… “(he said the word ‘faculty’ extremely slowly and with emphasis in case it was new to my vocabulary) “awards degrees. Do…you…understand?”

“Uh, yes, well, sort of… er… I have a vague recollection of the term “faculty” from the hazy days of my undergraduate degree,” I stammered, tempted to add “which I obtained while you were in pre-primary school.” But I smiled meekly because I had no idea what he was talking about and I need him to sign my application. Thankfully, he signed but not before sending me off to the Office of the Dean (or something like that) to find out whether there were other subjects I needed to take if I intended to study Economics to third year level.

I found the offices without getting lost but there was a small hitch. The offices were all housed behind one master door with a list of names and extension numbers next to an internal phone. I was literally locked out and didn’t have an actual name of someone to phone so I would have to irritate someone with my whole story and hope that they would be able to help me. Fortunately, someone decided to exit at this point and I politely accosted her with my problem. She was unable to help and in fact, in her opinion, this bank of offices was not where my answer would lie. Instead, she sent me off to another branch of academic administration in the building. Before long, I was lost again but I saw a Professor-y looking type to ask for directions. He was very nice and started explaining where I needed to go but then looked down at his watch and looked back at me with empathy: “You’d better hurry because it’s ten to one and admin staff take their lunch breaks very seriously.”

I literally RAN (one benefit of being a stay-at-home mom is that I’m always in flats) to said admin office. There was still someone behind the reception kiosk. Relief. She directed me to another person within a corridor of locked offices which she granted me access to. The office of the person I was supposed to consult with was empty. I scanned through the offices to find a human. I happened upon someone and explained that the Economics co-ordinator suggested I confirm what other subjects I needed to do in order to be allowed to take the subject to third year level. She told me to have a seat and started leafing through a rather thick official-looking handbook.

“Hmm,” she said, “It doesn’t look like there are any pre-reks for Economics.”

“Um, by pre-rek, do you mean a pre-requisite?”

She looks at me as though I’ve just asked whether Maths is short for Mathematics.

Okay, I could change my vocabulary but I was a bit concerned that she wasn’t 100% certain of her answer and that the answer may or may not have resided in a very thick book where it could very easily be over-looked.

I asked her if she was sure about four times and I found none of her answers to be re-assuring.

In the end I left and convinced myself that Computational Maths and Business Stats sounded like good subjects to do and if they turned out not to be the correct “pre-reks” for obtaining a major in Economics that may or may not be granted by “faculty”, then so be it.