The Cost, Expense and Value of an Education

My current education is costing me a pretty penny. Not quite as pretty as the pennies I am paying Sallie Mae for my Bachelors Degree from The George Washington University in Washington, DC, but nonetheless, it is costing me.  And it has been worth every penny I’ve spent.

Earlier this year, I applied to a competitive Masters Program at The School of Visual Arts in NYC. I worked my butt off to get my application in on time and was rejected. I was upset when I received my rejection letter and the note I got from the coordinator of the program with “helpful tips” for reapplying next year didn’t help, but once I settled down, I realized that I wasn’t upset about the rejection at all.  I was disappointed, I mean nobody likes rejection, but my thinking then was that bigger and better things were headed my way; and they are, I’m currently living them.

See, I had been planning to make this trip to Japan happen for about two years and applying to Grad school was just another way to distract me from taking the steps necessary to follow my dream. I also realized that I should have followed my initial reaction to grad school which was, you are interested in the program and enough so to reach out and talk with the Chair of the Program, but not enough to apply.  Anyhow, I didn’t listen to myself and went ahead and applied and I got rejected.

If I had gotten into grad school, the two-year program would have cost me $80,000. Yeah, that’s a bundle of money. I have no doubt that the program would have been just as good for me if I had gone, but I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t because I was worried about financing the degree the minute I heard the price tag.

Now, this little education that I’m getting of living in Japan for almost three months and being a wandering gypsy since October 1st, has also cost me, not near as much as that degree, but I did take my savings to fund this adventure. In the long run, and currently, the cost of this trip is of more value to me than what I would have gotten in one of the class rooms of a Master’s degree program in it’s first year.

Sometimes on-hand, in-person, real education is worth so much more than in the classroom analysis and project development.

So how much has this trip cost me? Well, I can’t be sure just yet, I’ll have a tally in January once I’m back home in the United States, but I can tell you this…the flexible/non-scheduled program at the Museum I’ve been studying at since October 16th has been amazing and eye-opening. I’m enveloped in a new language, culture, experience, and skill-set. I am learning about patience and a slower style of living. I have tuned back into myself. I’ve experienced a truly spiritual awakening and a questioning of myself that has both startled and left me amazed.  The most beautiful part of it all is that I’ve connected with a group of people so talented, open, and generous, I can’t say enough good things about them.

Every day at 3:00pm, we have “tea time.” It is where the staff of a paper making studio takes a 15 minute break. Paper making is hard work. It’s laborious and exhausting. Either way, in a traditional female role, I serve tea (of course!) and then sit with the main teacher, Tamamura-san. Lately, he has taken to noticing my large bust and makes a point to gesture with his hands my large bust, to which I promptly respond, “NO!” and then he laughs, but today, joking aside, he looked at me and said in a Japanese and English combination, “in three days you leave,” and then started to make a crying gesture with his hands.  I tried to tell him that I would be back, but my limited Japanese doesn’t lend itself too kindly to expressing that much.

Let me tell you about this man, Tamamura-san. He knows paper making. He grew up in a family that made paper. He has an air about him where he could care less about me. At least that is how I felt when I started in October. He would show me things, but spend most of the time watching me and saying, “NO!” and then taking over to show me what I was doing wrong. He also went about pushing me around. He knew I couldn’t speak Japanese and instead of saying anything he’d just physically push me. Now, don’t get worried. I understood. He didn’t trust me. I showed up out of nowhere, so American wanting to study his skill. He had no real time for me.  But he let me watch and watch and watch. Then he started letting me help set up the studio in the morning. Then he let me try making paper.

Yesterday, he taught me all about making “neri” (the adhesive used to bind the paper fibers into sheets). “Neri” comes from Tororo-Aoi, a root plant that gives off a slimy substance that acts as the glue for paper making. It is as important as the plant fibers themselves and Tamamura-san is in love with Tororo-Aoi. He is in charge of neri production at the Museum. Yesterday morning and afternoon for about several hours he brought me into his inner sanctum and taught me all about the process. We washed them, soaked them, beat them, and then took the roots back to the Museum where they will sit until added to the already mixed Tororo-Aoi bucket.  I realized the importance of this education yesterday when he told me that he loves tororo-aoi and I knew that we were having a bonding experience. This is as important to me as about two weeks ago, when this same man, looked at me during tea time and said “You are my friend.”

If I had chose grad school over coming to Japan, I might be sitting in a classroom in New York City discussing the importance of design to change consumer behavior as we face natural disasters post-hurricane Sandy. This is undoubtedly an important conversation to have and I’m glad that the 25 students selected over me have a real hands-on point to discuss and consider, but I’ll gladly take my location of Echizen, Japan.

My hands-on experience is not just a cultural exchange, like gaining the trust of Tamamura-san, but I’m also seeing and practicing real experience that I would have wanted to gain from the Master’s program in a different way. Every day, I see how the Japanese recycle, water gets collected and used in paper studios, and am learning to reuse items so less waste gets created. It’s really incredible to think about how my own thinking has changed since I left New York City and I was a pretty good recycler then.

Anyhow, a couple of days ago, I had a terrifying moment where I thought I might not have enough money and started to panic. I altered my plans (which was necessary) for this reason and because of an issue with the woman I have been staying with. I’m getting ready to leave Echizen in three days. I head down to Osaka on November 30th, the day before my birthday and will do some traveling before I figure out my business game plan and the next stage of my life. While every day I balance my accounts and account for every yen (and convert that to dollars) I spend, I also keep a mental note of all the amazing value each cost and expense has brought me.

I needed this trip, village, and education more than I realized when I bought my tickets that fateful night in August. As for what “education” means well, it definitely means paper making, but it also means life. I have posted a bit before about things I’ve learned and realized on this trip, but the biggest thing is that with faith and courage, doors open, and some shut, but nothing is forever, some things happen now because they need to and that is the beauty of life, you just have to be open to the beauty around you, even when everything seems dismal and are not working the way you want.

In that alone, I know I’ve definitely gotten my values worth. Oh, and as for Tamamura-san, just being around him is worth $800 (cost of the Museum program, by the way), pushes, “no!”,  and sexual harassment included.


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S2 Stationery & Design

A rule-breaking designer, artist & entrepreneur who's passionate about paper and handcrafting stationery. I also write, travel, and focus on eco + social good.

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