October 01, 2021

How persistence, a pandemic, and the New Yorker magazine spurred a degree at 61

“I’m like a lot of people who are sort of reassessing their existence during the pandemic.”

 

Joe Breiter Credit: Brady Bussler

Joe Breiter’88 made his way back to his Beloit studies last February after more than 30 years.

Three courses shy of officially finishing his English composition degree, he was married and settled in central Minnesota with a successful career as a marketing director. Looking back, he says the writing and editing skills he acquired at Beloit served him well, and the shortfall in college credits had taken nothing away from that.

But Beloit still called to him.

“I first started looking into finishing my degree in 2009, and I was in contact with Mary Boros-Kazai in the Registrar’s Office about what it would entail,” says Breiter, 61.

Among his options: Take courses elsewhere and request special permission to transfer them, or do something completely radical, such as take a sabbatical from his career, move to Beloit, and enroll in the required courses. Instead, he took a new job, which temporarily tabled the idea.

This tug between career and education began his senior year when he landed an internship with a Washington, D.C., publisher that turned into a full-time job. His plan to earn credit for the internship didn’t work out, but the job did, launching him first as a reporter and later into his current career as a marketing and public relations professional. He stayed in D.C. for five years instead of returning to Beloit.

In 2017, after abandoning his 2009 plan to finish his Beloit degree, he resurfaced the idea. “I re-contacted Mary, and she reminded me that I had pestered her about this eight or nine years prior,” he says with a chuckle. But the option of relocating to Beloit for a semester still seemed daunting and so did the transfer option. He paused his plan again.

Then came 2020.

Breiter read an article in the New Yorker in early 2021 that restoked his interests in finishing his Beloit degree. The headline read: “Is it really too late to learn new skills?” The upshot of the story was that learning new things at an age when most have mastered what they know puts people in the unfamiliar role of a novice, a mindset where they can learn a great deal.

“I’m like a lot of people who are sort of reassessing their existence during the pandemic. That article got me stirred up a little bit, and I think that’s what really prompted me to dig back into this project,” Breiter says.

The stars also aligned. Beloit’s faculty had adapted and were delivering classes online in spring 2020, and hybrid courses within shorter modules were offered for the 2020-21 academic year. Breiter recognized the moment’s rare possibilities. With these adaptations, he could take his three remaining courses online. He picked up the phone and called Beloit’s Registrar.

“All of a sudden I had access to the most direct way to approach this and get it done,” says Breiter, who says that learning something new, gaining a credential, and finishing what he had started all contributed to his desire to complete his degree.

With advice from Professor of English Tamara Ketabgian, he came up with a short list of courses to consider. One was Ketabgian’s lit survey class called Steam Stories, Data Dreams: Narratives of Technology, Knowledge, and Power.

He thinks he miscommunicated because suddenly he received an email from Beloit’s Registrar explaining that he was enrolled in Steam Stories. The class, which covers the steampunk literary genre — science fiction set in 19th-century societies dominated by steam-powered technology — is something Breiter says he’d never heard of before taking the course. But he was intrigued.

“I got an email from the Registrar saying that she had registered me for Tamara’s class and I was like ‘OK, well … I guess I’ll take the class then.’” He was just in time. Spring courses were beginning within days.

After successfully completing that course in May, he started an intensive three-week Summer Blocks writing course with English professor Chris Fink. Up next was another summer course called Art and Activism, taught by Michael Dango, an assistant professor of English.

By the end of summer, after 10 straight weeks of juggling college and his full-time job, Breiter had finished all three courses, earning his 31 units of credit. His only remaining requirement is to publish a booklet of his writing, which he planned to complete in the coming month.

When his diploma arrives in the mail, Breiter will not only have earned his official designation as a graduate, he’ll also take his place as the fifth person in his family to complete a Beloit degree.


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