Essays

Going to School at Starbucks

Welcome to my classroom—a Starbucks in Venice. As a West Los Angeles College online student, I’m earning a degree here. Coffee in hand, books in reach, I plug in my ever-present laptop. I use Starbucks’ free wifi to connect to West’s online portal. I type a code; my classes leap up. No new tasks in some, but wait—it’s Monday! I click on English 102, knowing Professor Lincke-Ivic will have posted a weekly to-do list. I read it—eeek! She has! Lots of work to do. I grab Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. We’re reading and discussing it online; a paper about it is due. I pour over new discussion questions and posts from classmates, smiling at their fervor; we get passionate in our online lit class. Deciding to post later, I open my paper-in-progress document, search Hesse’s novel for quotes I’ve highlighted, and start inserting them into my paper.

I’ve already put in two hours of reading at home, taken a dance class, and been fitted for tomorrow’s runway show. I hope to get in 90 minutes of work now, do a half-day shoot, and then study more in a Starbucks closer to home. This is my life at West Online; I adore it. I wanted to attend classes in a traditional campus setting, especially to study literature, but a wacky model/dancer/actress schedule made on-campus study impossible. An agent calls; I must be at an audition—now! Clients call/have me replace gals on jobs—now! I book a shoot/show 3,000 miles away—and have to catch tonight’s redeye. On the go, with no set schedule, how could I attend classes on campus?

I researched online programs; West had the best course variety. Last year, I enrolled, not knowing if I’d love or loathe it. Well, I love it! I can list many pros and no cons. Attending college while working/training in fields I’m passionate about has spiced up my life. I’m always juggling, doing papers/quizzes, or reading between gigs/appointments. I work in spurts—at home in the early morning, 30-to-90 minute blocks—as much as I can—and between auditions, or on breaks. If I travel, I ask where every Internet café near my hotel is. I’ve studied on planes/trains, at airports/talent agencies, in vans/trailers, hotel lobbies, backstage, and at dance studios, with Mozart or hip-hop playing in the background. However, my favorite class setting is Starbucks; the aromas, music, and energy here help me to study. The Starbucks “classroom” I love most is in NYC—right on Broadway. Luckily, I can read/write around people, and don’t need silence to focus. And word docs let me write, even without an Internet connection.

Here at Starbucks, or at any of the other “classrooms” I frequent, I get to know classmates and professors I’ve never met. Courses include online discussions; we post about classic literature or other reading materials. It’s exciting to read the opinions of my diverse classmates. With 12 units that equal four classes, I meet four sets of people per semester. In their company in cyberspace, I don’t worry about what to wear or how I look. If I’m home, I can wear pajamas. And…how freeing to discuss books online, unseen! Online lit students are expressive, emotional, passionate in discussions. There’s some fearlessness in posting, yet we know that we’ll be graded on contributions, and on our reactions to others’ posts. I respect the many West parents who juggle work, raising kids, and online college, and my posts reflect this respect. Despite huge responsibilities, they surely inspire their children.

In my Venice Starbucks “classroom,” a lady just asked if I’m writing a script. Ha! This is L.A. I say, “I’m studying.” She smiles; I return to work. Since I’m planted at Starbucks, guys flirt, but I’ve improved at not getting distracted. If needed, I’ll take a break to chat. But I like being in my online class, and I feel the same anticipation at being graded online as on-campus. It’s exciting to log into my West online class and see what grade I’ve earned—an “A”!—or that a professor/classmate has posted words of praise for my work. Seeing what I’ve written in print online makes all this real; it’s like being “published.”

I used to think I had a busy schedule before West Online, but found I could do much more on a given day when I added college classes to this schedule. I’m always reading multiple books for my classes, and in one stage or another of many assignments. The beauty of online college is going at my own pace. If I have a big job coming up, I stockpile college work and submit assignments early. On light days, when I am not juggling career-related jobs, I do big blocks of schoolwork; cup after cup of Starbucks coffee keeps me awake; barista friends slip me free refills. When intense professional jobs and college projects happen at the same time, determination and coffee see me through. Deadlines that seem impossible are met; it’s so rewarding to finish! And…I feel part of a college community.

Going to school at West Online, I don’t feel disconnected from my professors and peers; West Online is a community. We students commiserate on challenges/congratulate on accomplishments. I feel as if I know my classmates. Their voices, hearts, and souls are on the screen. If I have questions, I e-mail/private message professors or peers, or hit a chat room. My fields are social, so I’m not lonely, and now I have more people in my life—my fellow students. All of us choose, because of busy lives, to do college online.

In high school, I planned to defer college to pursue career goals. When I read about online college in a local paper, it seemed appealing enough to try. If doing college online had overwhelmed me, I’d have finished a semester and deferred my higher education until later. Instead, West was a joy from the start. The tech aspects of online college are simple; there’s a support team if you have an issue, but tech problems have not occurred—so far!

At West Online, I’ve broadened myself beyond the performing arts, relishing classes I never thought would interest me. I don’t have time for TV, and decline some fun invitations, because a college education is worth my attention. If you want something, you find time and energy to do it.

As a dancer, I push my body to its limits; doing college work gives my brain an equally strong work-out. The more I read, the more I want to read; the more I write, the more I want to write. I enjoy shooting commercials, doing acting scenes, walking runways, and traveling. It’s a blessing to love my careers, but college has opened up my soul. Still…going to school online takes a lot of effort.

In online classes, motivation and staying on task is key, but online college encourages this kind of intense focus. Here in Starbucks, I make a weekly list of what’s due (papers/quizzes, and so on) per class, and then put the list on my laptop screen and in a day runner. Sticky-notes are everywhere.

But back to discussing literature online—one of my favorite things to do. Online, we have no boundaries/barriers beyond observing standard etiquette. I get a feel for people’s personalities via their opinions about the works. Unusual material is discussed openly, with passion; we support each other’s efforts. At work, some see me on break, head buried in a text or typing away, and take an interest. Older people like to know we younger ones push ourselves in positive directions; they hear so much about our mistakes and problems. It’s satisfying to have the support of professionals I admire.

College is important, because we never know where life will lead us. If I got injured or sidelined, I’d turn to the books and assignments I now love. I didn’t over-achieve in regular school, but was so tired, with training/working/getting to class! Now, I get needed rest to think critically. However, online study isn’t “easy.” I double-check or triple-check tests/papers and deadlines. As semesters begin, I print/read the syllabus of each class two or three times; professors have different styles.

But what do I like most about online classes? There’s friendship and camaraderie online: the sense of community I referred to earlier. Although I’m not a party person, and socialize with professional peers, I don’t miss college gatherings; I’m there online! And it’s a relief not to fight traffic or burn gas to go to school; plus, I’m glad not to be absent or tardy for “real” classes. I do assignments I like least first, to avoid procrastination. Many were shocked that, as a teen, I didn’t plan on college right away. People seemed to expect it of me, but my model/dancer/actress schedule was radical. During the year-long academic break I took from school, however, I missed hitting the books. I considered enrolling in campus classes at West, attending as many class sessions as I could, but somehow knew I’d feel guilty or “behind” my peers; that they would have advanced more academically.

Online sounded just right. All I need is at my fingertips. If I have a computer glitch, I use a friend’s computer or go to a library. I’ve learned to problem-solve and manage time. I also check in online at all hours: 6 a.m., noon, 5 p.m., midnight. Now, that’s flexibility! In a year, online college has grown popular. At first, some thought it was odd; now, many know and support on-liners. I have career goals to pursue; getting a degree at the same time is a dream come true for me, and for my parents. I don’t overtax myself and take care nutritionally so I’m energized. In addition, classmates teach me so much, with all of us in the same boat—juggling life, work, families—yet determined to do college. Areas I work/train in aren’t related to my courses, so my mind has expanded, as I’ve indicated. Now well-rounded, I relate to on-campus college friends who read the same books and take similar courses. I like hearing about dorm life, but it’s not my path. Some say we can’t or shouldn’t do “too much,” but people can handle much more than they think. College has made me appreciate my fun, creative fields. I’m jazzed to earn a degree online, and glad to live now, with technology that lets us go for it. At the end of a day in which I’ve danced, done a show, read poetry, and worked on a term paper, I’m tired, but fulfilled. Life is rich, and truly jam-packed.

I love the feeling of leading a double life, too. There’s a vast student age span online—from high school kids to grandparents, some with degrees in other fields. There are no barriers; diversity is stimulating. I didn’t read much during my academic break, without a guide, but now plow through literature. Academics and art enhance each other. Some people I know felt I wouldn’t endure as an online student, but here I am—a year later. What I learn now will be with me always. I don’t see myself using a degree soon, but it’ll open doors later I haven’t yet thought of knocking on. Connections to people happen differently. My classmates aren’t strangers, but peers and friends. My professors are caring mentors. I don’t know if I’ll be in a traditional classroom again, but that’s fine. I love West Online; it’s exciting to learn on the go, or right here at Starbucks. Eek!—time to post on the Lit board. I’ll get a refill, then add my own take on Siddhartha, exchanging ideas about the novel with my classmates. Busy day ahead—Ciao!

squaresTahlia jamison


Tahlia is an online student here at West. A model/dancer/actress, she loves combining working in fields she loves with getting a college education. In addition to enjoying all areas of the performing arts, Tahlia has fun spending time with her close-knit family, as well as reading, writing, going to the movies/theatre with friends, traveling, swimming, and playing with her dog.