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Column: Coming back to school after 10 years challenging but worthwhile

Man, it seems like it’s taken a long time to get to this point.

Like many other students on this campus, I will take part in next week’s commencement celebration. I will walk up the ramp to receive two bachelor’s degrees: for multimedia journalism and history.

I’m also 33 years old — not the oldest non-traditional student out there, but older than many of my counterparts. The effort that I put in during this second stint in college makes this graduation much more important to me than my high school or associate’s degree.

I spent 10 years in the newspaper business before my career hit a standstill. I had worked as a layout guy; then later as a sports writer for the Star-Herald in Scottsbluff, Nebraska for five years; then served as the staff photographer at the Alamogordo Daily News for another five years.

Last time around, when I worked on my associate’s degree, I aspired to attend the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (which is why I was in rural Nebraska in the first place). Nebraska didn’t let me in. I didn’t meet the academic requirements even going the community college route.

I had a contingency plan because, well, I always have a contingency plan. Since Nebraska was now out of the picture, I looked into going to a state college to finish my degree. By that point I had already been promoted to sports reporter, and under advice from my editor stayed at the Star-Herald. I did the small newspaper thing for a while.

But my career halted in Alamogordo. Though I had 10 years in the business, I couldn’t even get an interview for a job. I kept hearing how all these young kids were getting jobs right out of college with up-to-date knowledge on modern journalism. I had a choice to make: stay in Alamogordo, or make a change. I chose the latter.

Hindsight is always 20/20 vision. I had been bitter for years about not getting accepted to Nebraska, but my experience here at UNM showed me that I lacked the maturity needed to attend a big University like this. Not everyone is capable of enduring these rigors right away; even in the community college realm, I saw it being High School Part II.

Going through a major university system like this was much tougher than I anticipated. Unlike the time I tried 15 years ago, I came to realize that my life experiences helped me tremendously in dealing with the volume of work. Then again, not all students have the added stress of covering a nationally recognized basketball program like I did for a few years.

Don’t take that the wrong way: It’s not a complaint by any stretch. As challenging as it’s been these last three-and-a-half years at UNM, this has easily been the most rewarding experience of my life. I initially joined the Daily Lobo staff in 2012 not to learn, but to ensure my current skills wouldn’t rust as I developed new talents. To be able to cover Lobo basketball was totally worth any increased load I faced.

I also developed my passion for history here. For my entire adult life I squared my focus on journalism, and that’s it. I started at a newspaper right out of high school. I sacrificed a personal life for it. Coming back to school meant journalism would continue to be my sole focus ... until I took Andrew Sandoval-Strausz’s Early American History class and excelled, much to my surprise.

He talked me into taking his American Legal History class my second semester here. It remains the most challenging, yet most worthwhile class I’ve taken here. It helped me establish a passion for American history (and later war history with courses from Paul Hutton, Melissa Bokovoy and Caleb Richardson). History helped keep me sane, a reprieve from journalism for a moment.

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And yet, I still gained quite a bit from my Daily Lobo experience. Because my career hit a snag, I felt pretty low about my trajectory. Though it has been rocky at times – as all life experiences are ‑ I did reconnect with the field. Basketball had a lot to do with that, too, but so did my friendships with Thomas Romeo-Salas, Liam Cary-Eaves and others at the paper.

My time here at UNM isn’t over yet. I’ve been accepted to graduate school to get a master’s in sport administration, and I will start the program this spring. I’m devoted to going back to sports full-time, whether it be in journalism or in another realm.

But with undergraduate completion right around the corner, I can’t help but feel a level of pride I haven’t felt before. My last two graduations I walked for commencement because my family insisted. This time, I’m walking for me.

J.R. Oppenheim is the managing editor for the Daily Lobo. For one more week, anyway, then he goes back to assistant sports editor. Contact him at or on Twitter @JROppenheim.

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