T.Lee’s Life Story – Chapter 2, My College Life

In Chapter 1, you learned that I grew up under humble circumstances and that my parents were poor and uneducated. Nevertheless, my parents provided my brothers and me the basic necessities of life, and we never went to bed hungry. Though uneducated, my parents fully understood the value of education and had always impressed upon us kids that we had to go to college if we wanted to have a better life than they had had. My hometown was small and had no colleges or universities. That meant I had to leave home to get my education.

So, where was I to go to college and how was I going to pay for it? I had just graduated from high school, I had no job skills, I had a car but no money, and it was time for the bird to leave the nest to see if his little baby wings could keep him from falling to the ground.

Me: Dad, what’s a good college?

Dad: Well, son, there are several. Vanderbilt University is one.

Me: Where is that?

Dad: That’s in Nashville, Tennessee, son.

Me: Is it expensive?

Dad: Yep, most colleges are, son.

Me: How can I pay for college?

Dad: Well, you have good grades, so you should be able to get a scholarship.

Now most scholarships tend to go to poor people. And though I was poor, I wasn’t poor enough. I wasn’t that poor. Some poor people would have thought I was rich but I never felt rich, then or now. In either case, there was only one organization back then that valued education (straight A’s) more than simply helping the poor, and that was the military. So I applied for a US Navy scholarship (a type called an NROTC scholarship). It would pay for me to go to a college of my choice (Vanderbilt, here I come), buy my books, and give me a little spending money each month.

Why would the US Navy give me such a sweet deal, you may ask? Well, of course, nothing is free in life. There’s always a catch. Upon graduating from college, the Navy would wave a magic wand and make me an officer in the US Navy. All I had to do was to give them the next five years of my life by serving as a Naval officer on one of their ships at sea. That seemed like a fair trade to me, so nuclear-powered submarine, here I come!

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to college. The small amount of spending money the Navy scholarship gave me was not enough to live on, so I went to college by day, and worked full time (40 hours a week) by night and on weekends. I had no job skills, so I needed a job that could be learned quickly and easily. Hm, what kind of job could this be? There was only one answer–waiting tables. For the first three years, I worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. For the last year, I worked as a waiter in a Red Lobster seafood restaurant. Waiting tables pays hard, cold cash every night. It was lucrative enough to pay for apartment rent, food and clothes, and gasoline for my car. Hey, I even made some friends!

I chose to major in electrical engineering, a very boring field in my opinion. Working full time by night, I had to study by day, so my grades throughout my four years of college were mediocre. It didn’t matter though because I had a guaranteed job upon graduating from college, and I already knew it wasn’t going to be electrical engineering work. To make matters worse, not only did I have to take a normal college load like other students, but I also had to take Navy courses on top of my normal courses so I could start learning about the US Navy. Thus, I had to work my butt off in college whether I liked it or not! To add salt to the wound, I could not relax for three months during summer breaks every year. Why? My NROTC scholarship also required me to give all my college summers to the Navy as well.

The purpose of the Navy summer training was to introduce me to different facets of the US Navy so, as I neared graduation, I had an idea what kind of work I would like to do in the Navy. The first summer I spent in Virginia playing as a marine. I got up early, exercised, ran obstacle courses, dug foxholes, and played “Army games”. The second summer I went to sea on a real Navy ship, and I did shipboard duties as an officer in training. The third summer I spent in Texas flying jet fighter planes and learning navigation.

After evaluating these different areas of Navy life, I eschewed them all and chose nuclear submarines instead. This was the part of the Navy that required brain power instead of muscle. That decision served me well for the rest of my entire life. It trained me in all things nuclear so when I left the Navy for a civilian job, I was highly trained and highly valued. I easily landed a job with Westinghouse Electric Company in the field of commercial nuclear power plant operations training.

One last thing to mention about my college life. All my required courses were boring. However, I did have room for one course of my choice, what we call an elective course, and I chose learning the Chinese language. That was the only course that I ever enjoyed in college, and it served me well for five years of work in Taiwan and four months of work in mainland China. I had a blast learning and speaking Chinese! And that closes the book on my college days chapter.

Nuclear Submarine