In this episode of From the Source, we discuss the challenges Ehrrin Keenan is facing and has faced in reaching her goal of graduating college — again. As an adult learner, she shares her experience navigating systems, self-esteem and assignments.
Jourdan: For anybody who’s ever wondered, how do I find these people to interview for the podcast, I’m about to tell you. Every day I set a certain number of people that I want to reach out to. I send them messages and invite them to either have a conversation with me, to participate in the podcast, or set a time aside where we can brainstorm what’s burning their hearts and minds on the inside, if they would like to talk about it, and if PublicSource is the right platform to do that.
Jourdan: I look for people on social media. If you are following PublicSource, have left an emoticon reaction, left a comment, I am in your inbox. Respectfully. Introducing myself and saying thank you for uplifting our content and reacting to it, interacting with it, and to ask you an important question. And then I shoot my shot. This time around, I wanted to talk to you about your growth, the things, moments, events, feelings, situations you’ve had to transcend to become who you are. The barriers you’ve had to break through, how you did it, why you did it and to learn more about how you just uniquely created yourself, honed your talents and became who you are through adversity. I met Ehrrin Keenan because she follows PublicSource. When Ehrrin responded to my well-crafted, personable message, she said she was curious about the barriers part.
Ehrrin: I think I want to go back to school, but I have no idea where to even start. Is there a guidance counselor for adults? There’s not.
Jourdan: Ehrrin and I discuss what it means to have a fourth first time at trying something, at doing something, her reflections as a person living with ADHD and her statement as to what she knows to be true for sure up next.
Jourdan: The first question I usually ask is what is the statement that you’ve come prepared to share? What is the statement you want to make with your story?
Ehrrin: That you can always do it again, like there’s no limit on how many attempts you can make. There’s no age limit. The real limitations are financial and logistical of like figuring out how you can fit this in your life and how to pay for it. Those are the big barriers, but those are things that are logical problems. They’re things that there is help out there for. You don’t have to know all that stuff. If you want to do it, I know that there is a way, because this is my fourth time doing it. I really, really hope that this fourth time will be the winner. Fourth time’s a charm, like that old saying. Thought it was going to be three, but that’s just not how it worked. I can be an overachiever in some realms, so this is one of them.
Jourdan: Ehrrin says she’s held down a whole lot of jobs trying to finance her education. She’s been a waitress, hostess, dishwasher and even an executive assistant. And just like her career path, her areas of interest and field of study has changed many times. She studied English Lit, she’s majored in Social Science twice, and now she is a Legal Studies major. She decided to go to Pitt (University of Pittsburgh) because their financial aid process and package was somewhat familiar to her. She had attended Pitt before, and she said that she believes that she could have found a better financial deal had she been up to doing the research. For anyone who’s ever had to apply for any type of financial assistance, you know that it can be a complex process, and Ehrrin didn’t feel confident or knowledgeable enough in researching all of what was available to her, so she went with Pitt. Back to Pitt she went. University of Pittsburgh, here I come again. Hey, how ya doing?
Ehrrin: I ended up taking out federal student loans and a private loan this year to help pay for things so I could still just work part-time. I had been working at full-time jobs at each of the previous attempts at college, and that just hadn’t worked for me. And I know that lots of people do it and also have kids and have other things in their lives, but after three attempts, it was like, I just really want to figure out a way to actually finish this term. So I ended up taking out some loans. Biggest loan I’ve ever taken out, which is pretty scary.
Jourdan: Like the biggest loan you’ve taken out in life, period? Or the biggest loan you’ve taken out for a school?
Ehrrin: Period. Yeah, that’s a pretty overwhelming part, and it’s hard to find even who can help you. Definitely, like the school financial aid offices are a good place to start, although it wasn’t as thorough and helpful as I hoped. But our awesome Carnegie Library system has lots of resources that are free and they can really help you navigate that stuff. I just wanted to make sure I mentioned that part of it. I also just talked to a lot of friends about, how do people do this? Like if you’re not independently wealthy, how do you even do that? Especially like I was unemployed at the time, you know, totally unemployed. Right now, I have a couple part-time jobs. I nanny and pet-sit, which are awesome and joyful, and I feel very, very lucky to have gotten into those situations. I’ve been pet-sitting on and off for years and was able to this sort of pick up a few more folks in my roster, including baby goats.
Jourdan: That’s fun.
Ehrrin: Yeah, they are the cutest little characters.
Ehrrin: When I first met them, one of them weighed, I think, 4.8 pounds and the other one was like 5.2 pounds. They were smaller than the cats and the chickens that these folks had. Teensy little guys.
Jourdan: A little five-pound bag of sugar.
Ehrrin: Yeah, I’m going to I’m going to text you a couple of pictures because they are outrageously adorable.
Ehrrin: I’ve been able to sort of carve out these gigs and cobbling things together. My unemployment ended a while back. So just trying to figure out what I can do to make it work through my loans and then supplement that with these little side gigs that happen to be like the most wonderful things I’ve ever done. And I haven’t had a second of job stress since I started being a nanny and a pet-sitter, where I get to hug chickens and hold baby goats. My life is so completely different than it was a couple of years ago. It’s a very positive way, which is complicated. You know.
Jourdan: I think that your self-portrait of what it takes to overcome hard times and difficulties, be they internal, be they be literal, in terms of your job, not having a job, being laid off. How to navigate systems that have changed since the last time they’ve interacted with them. I’m quite sure the first time that you enrolled in school was very different from this last time that you’ve enrolled. And you’re a different person, you have different needs and you had to learn how to advocate for yourself. You had to learn you more so that you could advocate for yourself, for what you need. And I think that that’s a message that will resonate with anyone, be they a student or not a student.
Jourdan: In terms of the spaces and times where you needed assistance, were they primarily financial or were they more emotional support needs?
Ehrrin: It’s really been across the board. I have been in therapy and had a psychiatrist for a long time.
Ehrrin: And those are things that, for many years when I was younger, I would go to therapy for a while or take medication for a while, and then I would feel better and think like, “Oh, I got this” and go off of them. And it would be fine for a few months, and then it was absolutely not fun.
Ehrrin: And so I think in my late 30s, really, came to terms with this is like any other medical condition, Like if I had diabetes or a heart condition or whatever, like I would take my medication for it forever. I would never get to the point or be like, I’m just not going to need my heart medicine anymore because I’ve just decided that I don’t.
Jourdan: I’m feeling like I don’t need it today.
Ehrrin: I’m just going to… I got this. It’s just, you know, not really a thing. I think a lot of people do have short-term issues that they can work through and get help with medication, and some people have lifetime issue. And unfortunately, it is harder to find resources because there’s so many people that need them and it’s nowhere near the infrastructure to meet that need, especially when folks need additional financial help for it. You know, with ADHD, I sort of think of it as mental health, sort of think of it as brain and processing difference, divergence. Still some stigma around it as well, especially just still a big issue of women being properly diagnosed, especially when they might be older, like me. I would say just like really advocate for yourself and ask questions. And a lot of times that can be more difficult when you’re struggling with mental health issues, but even if you get help and things still aren’t right, you can continue to try to figure it out.
Jourdan: What also is resonating with me is that, this level of inquiry and curiosity that remains with you, even if you’re not a traditional student. I think that it would have been easy for you to be like, “You know what? This is hard. I don’t want to learn any more else about this process. I’m just going to go on a whim and do it.” Or “I’m going to change my mind and not complete this, not take the next steps, not follow through with the things that I want to do.” And it could have been easy to get discouraged and just lived in that space. So I hope that you’re proud of yourself and realize that you’ve been your best advocate and champion through all of this. And I hope that’s also something that the audience hears, too. That there are resources out there, but it would help — I’m not going to say you’re going to need, that sounds a little harsh — it would be helpful for you to believe in yourself and to take time away when necessary. Do you plant thing, take a walk, get some fresh air, drink some water, relieve your mind. And to come back to it.
Ehrrin: Yeah, for sure. I mean, thank you for saying that. It’s still definitely a process. It’s still like, you know, things get hard and I’m scared. Like, am I going to drop out this time? As if I don’t have the agency here. Because it’s scary and overwhelming. You know, I’m now in my third semester back. It’s going well so far, I’m really going to try my very best to make it happen this time and use all the resources that I have available. I’m getting ready to make a study coach appointment because, yeah, I just need some help with figuring out how to organize notes. I want to include, like, everything I’ve learned. And then I don’t get down to the specifics that I really need to make sure that I understand a lot of times.
Jourdan: Even some of the things that you’ve said have really resonated with me, and I’m not in school. I’m not trying to go back to school. Life is real, and I think it’s natural for people at any point in their life to still have goals for themselves. I was just thinking last night that wow, there are some things that I feel like I wanted to do in my previous — not previous life, but let’s say in the last decade — that I haven’t gotten around to that I want to get back to that may not look the same as they would have when I was like 22. But they can still be incorporated. I can still work toward these things. I can still hone some of those skills and bring some of that joy back into my life that these activities or things gave me then. And so that’s like, I feel like that’s the message, like, that’s what you know for sure.
Jourdan: Yeah, there’s always a next chapter.
Jourdan: Yes, the answer’s always yes.
Ehrrin: There’s always more to learn about yourself and the world around us. And yeah, I’m pretty excited for continuing that and that, you know, I did let myself be intimidated for years about going back to school, and just like, overwhelmed by the logistics and the money and all that stuff. But, you can do it.
Jourdan: You can do it. It can be done.
Ehrrin: Or whatever, like whatever change you want to make, like there’s always like we’re never static. We’re, you know, we’re always moving forward and then we get to decide what, to some extent, what that looks like. Even when it feels like you don’t have a path, there are resources out there.
Ehrrin: Whether that’s financial, whether that’s with your health or your mental health, or just figuring out next steps. Oh, I should also shout out a really awesome organization that I haven’t used specifically for school, but I’ve used in the past to help me get financially back in better shape so that I could even be in a position to take out a loan. It’s Hebrew Free Loan. They’re a local organization, part of a national organization, but there’s a local branch here, Hebrew Free Loan Pittsburgh. They give free zero interest loans to people. I was able to find some friends who are willing to cosign for me a few years ago to pay off some credit card debt, and work with Hebrew Free Loan to take out this loan with zero interest. They’ve paid everything off and then I just directly paid them. That helped me build back up — or build not even back up, I never had good credit — it helped me build some credit and pay off some really high interest things much more quickly than I would have been able to otherwise. So they’re another really incredible local resource. They only have, I think, two or three employees, and then the rest is a volunteer board. You don’t have to be Jewish, you don’t have to have much in place beyond the cosigner and filling out the application. But yeah, people should go to their site and check it out and see if it’s an option that might work for them. Because I think a lot of people don’t know about it, and it was kind of life-changing for me. Like actually put me in a place where I could even think about taking a loan.
Jourdan: You’ve just been like a wealth of knowledge over these past two days, Erinn. Where to get money, where to find resources, who are the resources, what it feels like in your body when you’re trying to navigate these resources, trying to keep yourself encouraged, advocating for yourself and what your needs are as a learner, learning who you are. This is going to do a lot of good, and it’s going to, I think, encourage a lot of people to go back and reclaim the thing that it is that they want to do and to do it with confidence.
Ehrrin:Well, Jourdan, thank you so much. This was a really, really lovely way to kind of look back at the past couple of years, and see like where I am and how I got here and reassess, and it’s been very affirming. I love your podcast. I’ve listened to so many episodes since we started talking. I feel so honored that you are including me in your work and made me feel really good about myself. So thank you so much.
Jourdan: Good. You deserve it Ehrrin, and thank you for the amazing compliment. I feel like I’ve made a new friend through this.
Jourdan: Even though Ehrrin has settled on studying legal studies, she’s still unsure exactly what she’s going to do next. She might want to become a lawyer, or she might want to study a different facet of law and how it affects civil liberties, the rights of people and the formation of laws. But for now, she is tentatively thinking about law school and hoping that she’ll figure out what she wants to become when she grows up. There you have it. You know, it’s been my pleasure to introduce you to Ehrrin. Hope that you felt it was nice to meet her. Things I would ask you take away about Ehrrin and her story is that she is an overachiever in taking her time and hanging around long enough to find the right time to do something. That she wants you to stick with it until you figure it out.
Jourdan: Season three of “From the Source” podcast is produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis, and edited by Halle Stockton. If you’re curious to learn how you can share your story with us or appear in an episode of “From the Source,” you can get in touch with me by sending me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jourdan: PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at publicsource.org.. I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe and be well.
This fact-based local reporting drives impact and creates change. Help power that impact.
James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” PublicSource exists to help the Pittsburgh region face its realities and create opportunities for change. When we shine a light on inequity in our region, like the “completely unacceptable” conditions in low-income housing in McKeesport, things change. When we ask questions about policymakers’ decisions, like how Allegheny County is handling COVID-19 safety for its employees, things change. When we push for transparency on issues that affect the public, like in the use of facial recognition software by Pittsburgh police, things change.
It takes a lot of time, skill and resources to produce journalism like this. Our stories are always made available for free so that they can benefit the most people, regardless of ability to pay. But as an independent, nonprofit newsroom, we count on donations from our readers to support this crucial work. Can you make a contribution of any amount (or better yet, set up a recurring monthly gift) to help ensure we can continue to report on what matters and tell stories for a better Pittsburgh?