Student Profiles

Justin Szymik

Justin Szymik in a Cambodian minefield

"Four weeks left Justin! Don’t get complacent and do something stupid like step off the trail. Keep focused, stay hydrated and before you know it you’ll be boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway in Beijing heading to Moscow. From there you’ll catch a flight back to Wilmington to start grad school at UNCW.” I remember this dialogue running through my head, over and over and over while I was giving my last tour through the mine fields in northern Cambodia during the spring of 2006.

When Congress declared war on Iraq in 1991 I knew that was my ticket out of Seattle so I could experience the world. Like my father before me I was mentally preparing myself for war even before I was 18 years old. Unlike my father, I volunteered. It would be another four years before I finally graduated from high school (a requirement to start classes a small community college in Conway, South Carolina). By the end of my first semester I was on academic probation and by the end of my second semester I was asked to not come back. They told me I was not academic material and they were right. For whatever reason, at that point in my life I wasn’t academically inclined. Fortunately, time didn’t stand still, I slowly began to recognize the value of a college degree and seven years later I was graduating from UNCW with a B.A. in Psychology. To add icing to the cake, I made the Dean’s list every semester. After graduation I didn’t have a real clear plan of what I wanted to do next so I took advantage of that lull and moved to SE Asia to collect my thoughts.

Periodically, during that time, while I led guided tours through the countryside, I asked my clients what they missed most from their Western lives. Someone answered “Carpet!” A girl once answered “Being shorter than the men.” Then it dawned on me I hadn’t ever seriously asked myself that same question. What I missed was UNCW. I missed the campus, the faculty, the academic lifestyle and even the food at Wagner Hall. I wanted to return to academia. I wanted to continue my education! But there was a problem. Although I had graduated with a degree in psychology I was lacking the ganas, the desire that is required to become a psychologist; in fact I couldn’t narrow any of my interest down far enough to choose one specific discipline. Then I came across the Graduate Liberal Studies program. When I read over the upcoming course descriptions and looked at the broad range of disciplines the professors came from, I was hooked. In no time at all I was making plans to come home and start graduate school.

Now that I’m fully repatriated, settled into my new apartment and have an assistantship on campus, I know I made the right decision. Making such a large transition, mid-life, is a daunting task but even at these early stages of my academic career I know the outcome will be worth it. The more you put in the more you get out. Unlike “traditional” programs where a majority of the students are the same age, creed and SES, the GLS program is full of diversity. Currently the youngest person in my GLS592 class is 24 and the oldest is over 80. The conversations and variety of experiences alone make this program worth while.

Once I have finished my graduate degree here at UNCW, I will be applying to Georgetown University’s Doctorate in Liberal Studies (DLS) program. Georgetown’s DLS program is the first and only one of its kind in the world. When my doctorate is completed I hope to take the Liberal Studies field to the next level by being the first person to return to academia solely dedicated to the discipline of Liberal Studies.

Last Update: September 19, 2007

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