When I decided to get my master's degree in English, I checked out many local colleges and universities, everything from Harvard to UMass-Boston.
I wanted a program that would be challenging and thorough, as well as affordable. Because we had our teenage daughter's college to save for, that last factor was high on the list.
To my surprise, the school that fit my criteria the best was Bridgewater State College. Certainly the price was right - about a fourth the cost of the private colleges and universities in the area - but its offerings also looked rigorous and thorough. According to the catalog, the program had the courses I was interested in, and it demanded both a thesis and a comprehensive exam for graduation.
I still wasn't convinced a state college could give me the quality education I wanted, so I decided to give it a trial run. I signed up for a course as a nonmatriculated student.
I chose Introduction to Graduate Study because it sounded like a gentle beginning course. My first night in class, I soon realized that I was very wrong. EN500, it turns out, is the class that separates the serious students from those who think a master's might be just a nice thing to have.
Up to my neck in bibliographic analysis, critical theory, and research followed by more research, my question, "Will a state college be tough enough?" changed quickly to "Can I survive?" Well, I did survive, and I loved it. I applied, was accepted, and graduated three years later.
It's true that state colleges don't always receive the respect they deserve. Sometimes, graduates of state schools may take a little longer to get hired after graduation, but I'm convinced that after their initial hire, most employers will find that those students' skills are comparable to those of other college graduates.
Also, state schools continue to struggle with financial issues. At Bridgewater, class offerings were sometimes limited, and our professors hadn't received a new contract in years - signs in the halls informed us of this fact. But despite these conditions, our professors put their all into their teaching, and we never felt that their protests affected their attitude toward us in the classroom.
If I had any doubts I'd made the right choice, they disappeared the summer before I graduated. Bridgewater offers an intensive three-week study program at Oxford University in England. I joined 29 other students - 24 undergrads and five graduate students - at Oxford's Wadham College.
Our Bridgewater professors stood by to provide moral support and direction, as well as to organize some educational tours on weekends, but unlike some American programs at Oxford, Oxford professors conducted our courses, not our own teachers.
We experienced the more direct, confrontational British method of education. And we heard wonderful lectures from experts in British literature - from the fiction editor of the Times to the editor of Virginia Woolf's writings. We felt our own state college education had prepared us well for the experience, and we met the challenges thrown at us. The program only increased our appreciation for our Bridgewater professors.
I'm sure I would have received a fine education from any of the other schools in the area. But I would have spent much more money and missed a rich experience - a vital atmosphere of diverse and hardworking students and teachers and three wonderful weeks immersed in the British system. State colleges may not be pretty on the outside, but they can still offer students affordable quality education.
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