One of the benefits of working for Harvard Medical School was having the opportunity to take classes at the Extension School–Harvard at night. So I did just that. Between fall 2003 and summer 2008, I was a part-time student walking through the wrought-iron portals and strolling the Yard alongside traditional students. There was something about making my way along the diagonal path from Holyoke (Wadsworth) gate toward Sever Hall or the Science Center that offered a comfort I had not experienced in college. I belonged there. And what I gained was better than knowledge, better than anything I could have imagined.
Form and Function
The classes I chose were in the biological sciences, creative and expository writing, and the dramatic arts: all for the employee tuition rate of $40 per class, plus the cost of books. And though I had flirted with the idea of pursuing a graduate degree, it was not about a degree. Enjoying the courses, meeting new people, and emotionally and mentally redoing pieces of my undergraduate experience mattered more.
In the early 90s, I walked the campus of the University of South Dakota in a fog. I was a dissociative mess from a series of traumas and had difficulty concentrating, focusing, and processing and storing information. I did not remember specific teachings from high school and college–what I learned in English, for instance–and I felt stupid. I knew I was intelligent, but I lacked the ability to express it well. The deep emotional centers of my primitive brain were in charge; I lived in survival mode. This made it challenging for my prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher level executive functioning) to do its work. It remained groggy. Taking classes was a way to clear the cobwebs, relearn much of what I had lost, and prove to myself that I was bright. That I was anything but dumb.
A New Perspective
The writing courses were essential elements for reconditioning my brain. Writing was difficult: remembering what to do and when confused me. Then I began reading about the brain’s ability to adapt–how new experiences and uncomfortable learning situations created the energy for a brain to rewire itself. I had Neuroplasticity on my side: The behind the scenes work a brain does to reorganize and develop new neural pathways to function better. I got it. Walking into Sever hall over and over again had helped me heal my brain.
The benefit of working for Harvard went beyond employment and health insurance–a synergistic interaction was at play. The courses challenged me to get my brain back. Harvard was my get well job, and I am grateful for it.