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Just Because Someone Says You Can’t Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Really Can’t. Ask.

December 30, 2009

When I returned to school—a long-thought-about but entirely impulsive decision caused by being laid off a couple of weeks previously—I realized on my way to register in the olden days before online registration how long it would take me to get a degree if I took courses one at a time. Although I hadn’t applied for admission or done any of the things I should have done prior to becoming a fulltime student, I decided to go ahead and take a full load.

As I tried to get registered, I was told that I couldn’t take a full load because I wasn’t an admitted student. I didn’t have official transcripts from courses taken two decades earlier. I didn’t have proof I’d graduated from high school almost a quarter of century before, nor did I have my SAT scores. SAT scores? Seriously. What were these going to show? I’d been working successfully for two decades in jobs that had required higher level math and verbal skills. Wasn’t that enough? Where does someone even get twenty-plus year old SAT scores? (Hint: My high school had a record of them in my cume file.)

I didn’t have financial aid because I hadn’t applied for it a year earlier. But that’s another story.

Yesterday I talked about patience and pleasant persistence. These things are what got me registered for a full load despite having none of the prerequisite requirements. It didn’t get me fully admitted, but nonetheless, it got me started. Here’s how I did it: I sat outside the registrar’s office after politely telling staff that no, I didn’t have an appointment, but that I was willing to wait quietly until he had time to talk with me, even if it took all day. They tried to get me to leave. They tried to convince me to go ahead and follow the procedures for admission, telling me that there was nothing anyone could do. I didn’t leave. Finally, after about an hour and a half, the registrar came out and said that he had a few minutes and would talk with me.

I pled my case, pointing out that I was an older student who’d proven my ability to be successful in multiple jobs. I pointed out that the institution had nothing to lose. I would either be successful in the courses or I wouldn’t and they would have my tuition dollars either way. I did all of this nicely and persistently, deflecting his demurrals and denials and continuing to say that there was nothing to lose by letting me register. I promised to get the requisite paperwork in, but I said that I was there and wanted to get started immediately, pointing out that as an older student with family obligations, I did not want to lose momentum.

He overrode the system and let me register for multiple classes. The rest is history. I continued without a break, graduating two and a half years later. We became colleagues when I returned to teach at the same school, and laughed about this day.

What’s the success advice here? If you miss a deadline or are told you cannot do something or need an extension to complete something or have had a request denied or whatever it is that you hope or need to circumvent, consider at least asking if there is any possibility that you can do whatever it is that you’ve been told you cannot do. Systems are designed to serve large numbers of people as efficiently as possible and sometimes there is room to make allowances for people who can make an articulate and compelling case for an exception.

This requires patience. It also requires a willingness to accept that your request may not be granted and the ability to move on graciously if it is denied. Don’t burn bridges by bad behavior. This seems obvious, but having been cursed at and threatened by students who were unhappy with systemic realities I was unable to circumvent, I can tell you that it happens. I am seldom willing to go out of my way to help these folks when they reappear in my life.

Based on your experiences or observations, what would you add to today’s advice?

The most essential factor is persistence—the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.
• James Whitcomb Riley

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