CMU, I don’t know what to do with you

I am literally at my wits’ end. After finally getting my acceptance letter from CMU, after sending my letter of acceptance of admission by certified mail, after weeks of trying to get followup information on financial aid, class schedules, or anything else, I found out today that they have postponed the West Coast Masters program in Information Security and Privacy until some future date. In fact, they haven’t even completely decided whether the MSIT-ISP program will ever be offered out here and have directed us to check the Web site for additional information at some point in the future.

Are you kidding me right now?

Tuition for the 2005 Spring semester is due on January 3rd and classes are scheduled to start on January 10th. (Most of this information I gathered by sifting through the INI Web site and the CMU West Web site as well as flat out asking inviduals running the program.) I got the bad news via email at 11:24 am today, December 20th. I suppose the only thing worse would have been to send me the bad news an early holiday gift decorated in CMU colors– seal it in an envelope, place the envelope in a huge gift box wrapped with luminescent cardinal wrapping paper, tie white and silver ribbons all around, and then send it out on Christmas Eve via first-class mail with no delivery confirmation and to the wrong address. That sounds about right, if you take into consideration how things have been going for over a year now.

Let’s go back to when my particular drama with CMU started. Now, for most people, when they hear “Carnegie Mellon,” they vaguely recognize that it’s a pretty good school somewhere among the mid-Atlantic states. Now, if you grew up on the East Coast (especially in or around the Tri-State area) or you’re into tech and/or are an engineer of sorts, you’ll know that Carnegie Mellon University is actually quite a prestigious university located in Pittsburgh (not Philadelphia), Pennsylvania and is ranked by US News and World Report as 22nd among national universities, following University of California – Berkeley (#21) and tying with University of Michigan – Ann Arbor and University of Virginina. And specifically, you’ll know that it’s one of the best engineering schools in the country– #9 among undergraduate engineering programs (at schools where the highest degree is a PhD), #11 among graduate schools of engineering.

I’ve always intended to pursue another degree, at first an MBA, but now more likely another degree in or related to computer science and engineering. But most programs like these are full-time and to be honest, I’m not really in the financial position to be going back to school and even if I did, the personal temperament to go through that. But last year, I found out about CMU’s West Campus, an example of a trend among many upper eschelon schools offering part-time, distance programs. I was glad to find out about this and hoped that this would be a great way to get my Masters degree while still continuing to work and live in the Bay Area. Additionally, by attending CMU, I could continue to be part of the tradition of academic excellence, especially in engineering, that I began with my undergraduate years at Stanford. So, over a year ago, last fall, I applied and was eventually accepted to the Masters program in Software Engineering (MSIT-SE). Unfortunately, the way the admissions schedule works there, I was basically told of my acceptance right about this time of year– a few days before Christmas. I had little time to apply for financial aid, do the paperwork for employer tuition reimbursement and more. So, I deferred until the following Summer or Fall semester, the next time a new cohort might be starting.

However, when I originally applied in the early fall of 2003, I was at the edge of my work as a software developer and my interest in it. Yes, I still do it and a fair amount of my day is still about writing and fixing plain old code. However, that fall was perhaps the last I would still be engaged in that work and thinking of it as part of my future– the focus of the world around me and as a result, my job, was quickly changing and both my interests and skills began to shift toward network management, information security, and privacy. Sure, my title is still “Systems Software Developer,” but a good chunk of that development is now directly related to investigating and developing host and network security tools. And a good chunk of my day now is spent working on relationships with networking, security, and legal departments and developing strategy, educational materials, and more related to networking and security. The change happened very quickly, but it’s a change I like, for the most part.

So, when the West Coast campus decided to start offering the Masters program in Information Security and Privacy (through the Information Networking Institute), I decided to apply. I figured, after reevaluating my education, recent work and career hopes, that this was the more appropriate program for me and even if I didn’t get in, I had the SE program in my back pocket. This was back in February 2004.

So I applied and didn’t hear anything back. In the meantime, I took the necessary steps to get ready for the MSIT-SE program– filling out a FAFSA, filling out the CMU financial aid application, applying for my staff tuition reimbursement program, etc. Summer semester neared and I still hadn’t heard back about the MSIT-ISP program. I was still holding out on it though, so I deferred again until Fall 2004. I followed up with the MSIT-ISP people, trying to find out what was going on, when they were sure they would start a cohort out here, but I got back very little. The only thing I heard back was that they would not be offering the MSIT-ISP program until January 2005. So, for the third and final time, I deferred my acceptance to the MSIT-SE program to January 2005.

Around September of this year, I saw that the application had changed for the MSIT-ISP program and that it was now being administered through Pittsburgh by the INI. I asked questions about the new application, wondering how previous applicants would be evaluated. I was told that I would not be penalized for having completed the earlier application, but if I really wanted to, I could fill out a new application. So, I went to take a look at the new application and saw that they were now requiring a GRE score (they had not previously). So, I told them that I would just stay with my old application since I had not taken the GRE. Unfortunately, they told me a GRE score is now required and that an email had gone out informing earlier applicants of this new requirement. When I said I had not received any email, a representative told me that many people seemed to have been saying that, leading her to believe that either emails sent out had bounced (and nothing was done to resolve the bounces) or the list passed on from the West Coast campus to them was incomplete. Utterly surprised by this, I asked if they even had my application– the answer, of course, was no. My application had been misfiled because I had been accepted to the earlier program and was never sent over with the other applications to the Pittsburgh campus. So basically, had I not prodded and asked repeatedly what was going on, I would never have known that they didn’t even have my application and that there was a new GRE requirement. This was almost at the end of September. I was told that I should get my GRE score in by the beginning of November, which left me about three weeks to study for, register for, and take the GRE. I have been out of college for over three years and have not taken a standardized test since high school.

And of course, I have been plagued with sickness and fatigue this whole fall/winter and although I studied and took the GRE in mid-October, I didn’t do as well as I think I could have. Anyone can have a bad testing day. But you can only sit for the test once a month, so I would have to wait another two to three weeks to sit for the test and hopefully do better. I was frustrated and felt like, maybe, it wasn’t in the stars that I attend this program. I was ready to withdraw my application and call it quits and although it wasn’t quite what I wanted, go ahead with the MSIT-SE program. But what happened? That day, I get an email saying, “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to the MSIT-ISP program for January 2005!” Basically, they had decided that I was very qualified for the program based on my application from March and that I should be accepted to the program. I didn’t have to study for, pay for, or take the GRE, the first time or otherwise. So, I was out $200 (test fee, study books), a vacation day, and three weeks of standardized test cramming, but at least I had gotten into the graduate program I wanted. This was at the end of October.

So, a few weeks ago, I thought everything was settled. It took a few weeks to actually get my official acceptance letter (they kept saying they were re-writing drafts and then they sent it to my office instead of my home) and I quickly sent back my letter of acceptance of admission and graduate student information sheet. I eagerly waited to be entered into the system to finalize my financial aid– my FAFSA had been processed in April and I had already signed a promissory note for the loans– and send in my tuition reimbursement paperwork. I had notified my boss of my class schedule and that I would be leaving early twice a week. I had told my coworkers that I won’t be able to quite pull the sixty, eighty hour weeks anymore since I’m starting a part-time masters program. Hell, I even announced it on my blog. I started my vacation (most of Stanford is shut down for the Winter closure) and thought, by January, I’ll be refreshed and excited, ready to return to work and to start school.

Apparently, no go. There are other options being offered to me now, but I seriously don’t know what to do anymore. Today’s email “apologized for the inconvenience,” but I think canceling a Masters program three weeks before its supposed to start is a little more than an inconvenience. Yes, a full-time program is usually logistically much more complicated– you have to deal with relocation, much larger tuition and financial aid, etc.– but a part-time program involves a fair amount of logistics on the part of the student. We still have to figure out tuition and synchronize work and class schedules. For those with families, the time management problem only becomes more challenging. And changing Masters program isn’t like changing majors when you’re an undergraduate.

I’m tired, I’m frustrated and I feel like I’ve been jerked around for a year. I don’t want to spend time and money pursuing a Masters degree I’m not really that interested in anymore, but at the same time, I feel like I’ve jumped through a lot of hoops this past year to get here, only to feel like I’ve been screwed. And I don’t want to wait around to see if the MSIT-ISP will ever be offered out here or reapply to another program only to be screwed over again. Six months ago, I was seriously looking at changing jobs and moving in a new direction, maybe even to a new city. Two days ago, I turned down an interview offer. All of this because I had, in my mind, committed to continue working at Stanford for the next two years while I worked on my Masters degree. I’m only twenty-five years old, but for all the opportunity and time I have in the world, I had to start to do something, but when I did, the immediate future I had constructed for myself all just fell apart this morning. My level of disappointment right now is unbelievably high.