bikepacking moab

My first semester as a non-traditional student

In Blog by Eric Benjamin2 Comments

Wow, it’s been over four months since my last confession, er, I mean blog post. I haven’t gotten lazy, I got busy. Starting classes was like diving into a pool where a race had already started and I needed to keep up. The only problem was I hadn’t raced in sometime and not only did I need to swim, I had to relearn how to swim while I was swimming! So all that talk in the last post about keeping up with Adventure Monkey and training for the DK200, 2016 while going to school was coming from a very naïve point of view. Here’s a quick breakdown of my first semester as a non-traditional student:

I rode my Fargo to the first day of school with shiny new folders, lots of blank, college-ruled paper, overpriced textbooks, and my handy-dandy, multicolored pen in my backpack. The Fargo has been through miles of gravel grinding and mountain bikepacking and now it would take me to school.

I misjudged the time it would take and I forgot something. Nothing big, just my glasses. Yes I started off to school without my glasses. I was a little nervous. I got to 8:00 Organic Chemistry just a little past eight and took a seat in the back. As we went over the syllabus I began to get hot and was leaving sweaty prints all over everything. You know how it is when it feels great riding and then once you stop you began to sweat profusely? That’s what happened, but instead of being in Lycra with my other cycling friends and popping open a beer at the end of a ride, I found myself sitting in a classroom for the first time in over 20 years. I used the syllabus as a fan, trying to be as quiet as possible. The teacher looked at me and turned on the ceiling fans. I think I heard a whimper from one of the college girls that was freezing in the air-conditioned room when he did that. Things were off to a great start.

It didn’t take long to cover the syllabus. He jumped right into lecture. I pulled out my multicolored pen and began to write things down. I looked around and felt like I was in class with children. SO this is what it feels like to be a “nontrad.” It was weird, but I was doing it. I was worried that my brain wouldn’t retain information well, that I wouldn’t be able to handle jumping into upper level classes right off the bat, and that well, I would fail. But I was doing it!

I quickly realized I would have to study my ass off in Organic Chemistry and well, all my classes. But chemistry has always been a tough one. The instructor wrote equations and mechanisms on the board like Dan Hughes covers 200 miles of gravel – fast.  It was all I could do to just keep up before he went on to another mechanism. “Oh well, I’ll figure it out when I get home,” I told myself.

Then there was Microbiology. Things had changed in the 20 years since I graduated. We were studying things on the molecular level that were straight up amazing. I loved the class from day one and my handy 4-color pen proved useful for taking notes. This was my last class of the morning and for the first couple of weeks my hand would cramp up like my legs at the 2010 DK200. But unlike the DK200, I decided against having a jar of pickle juice handy. I hardly ever write by hand anymore. I’ve done everything on a computer for the past however many years and my hand-writing muscles were severely atrophied.

Labs. You always have a partner in lab. Honestly this made me a bit nervous. I didn’t know anyone in class. How in the hell was I going to pick a lab partner out of a classroom full of children? I was taking school a lot more seriously than I did when I was their age and I remembered having terrible lab partners back then (one I chose because she was cute, but she decided half way through the semester to become an art major, leaving me to finish a huge environmental lab project on my own). Walking into the Organic Chemistry laboratory, people were partnering up. I took a deep breath and hoped for the best. As fate would have it, no one jumped to ask me or another guy that was from Africa, but we both lucked out. I was going to take the class seriously, plus I was a chemist for a few years (analytical not organic) and he was a premed student that needed good grades, so it worked out well. When I was young I never thought about the problems non-traditional students had to face.

I will never forget the first lab we did. I remember feeling bad when I worked as a chemist and broke glassware. That stuff is expensive. Our first lab had us setting up a simple distillation apparatus. It was like the Kristallnacht in there. I heard the sound of expensive glass breaking all around me. I found myself in teacher mode, helping the groups around me setup and be safe in the lab (including a time when the girls across the workbench from us created an uncontrolled cloud from overheating sulfuric acid). I think we all lost a few days from the end of our lives in there. The instructor was a real organic chemist that used to work in the pharmaceutical industry and wanted our lab write-ups to be up to spec for the industry, just in case we became organic chemists someday. Those write-ups took hours.

Bioscientific terminology was nothing more than memorizing Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes and taking quizzes every week. I had no idea how my brain would take to so much memorization.

All in all I found myself using internet resources to keep up with Organic Chemistry. Thank you Khan Academy! And speaking of the Internet, holy crap does that make college easier! My first time in college, there was no internet! Now I can look up anything! Trouble with a lab write-up? I could find the exact lab on the Internet! It was very helpful. The paper I wrote about the microbiome (there’s like 3-5 lbs of bacteria helping you live, in your gut!) was all done using the Internet. I can get to the library from my home and download research papers and articles to my computer. Wow.

The semester was difficult. The first three weeks had me wanting to quit at least every other day. Chemistry homework had me pulling my hair out. I was studying lower chemistry concepts I didn’t remember to help me understand the chemistry concepts we were covering. But I kept at it. I think I took one, maybe two days off, the whole semester from studying or doing homework. The bikes didn’t get a lot of use. I am in the worst shape I’ve been in, in some time. But my brain is working better than it has in a long time! I needed this. My legs may have atrophied a bit but my brain feels smarter than it has in years! I fell back in love with science, especially biology. I even wondered why I left it as I studied one day.

So how did I do? Well I dropped statistics because I couldn’t handle another class and it started at 3:00, when I had to pick up my son from school. I was worried about Organic Chemistry the most. I found the rest of the classes so interesting that I read the texts not just because I would be tested on it, but because I enjoyed learning it.

If you guessed I got all A’s, you would be correct. I killed it. There were times when I was at my wits end and had to remind myself that I finished the DK200! I followed Joe Meiser through the California mountains! I followed Jason Boucher through a muddy Kokopelli Trail! I can do this! And I did. Not only did I do well, I led a study group and had the highest grade in some of my classes (I didn’t check all of them).

I have accepted that I will not be in the DK200 next year, but I am focused on getting through school. I have a renewed sense of confidence and drive. I love it. I shadowed a PA and found it as cool as watching Bobby Wintle work on a bicycle. I was giddy as I felt a patient’s knee for landmarks telling the PA where to shoot goo into an arthritic knee. I know I am on the right track and it feels great.

What is becoming of this site if I am not riding and taking pictures?

Well this is my site. I can write about whatever I want. Currently the adventure is being 43 and a non-traditional college student. Cycling is not dead, but has taken a back seat. I need to ride or I will go crazy, so it will happen. And after I graduate and enter the working world again, I will actually be able to afford the bikes I want and adventure by bike will be a huge part of my life.

And photography? I’ll be honest, shooting commercially is enjoyable, but I want to return to the passion I once had. I am slowly collecting equipment to return to shooting film, large format film. I loved shooting film and printing in the darkroom and will be doing that again. I miss creating something that took a lot of thought and working with my hands. Digital doesn’t have that same feeling. But trust me, I will always bring digital technology with me on the bike to record the journey.

Questions or comments? Leave them in the comments or email me.

Feed Your Monkey!
Eric