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Another Angle: What I Learned in College

There are few EMS topics guaranteed to provoke as much disagreement as degrees for paramedics. Will higher education get you hired? Should you pay tuition or pay your dues? Debating those issues has become a tiresome exercise, with consensus as unlikely as wet bars on ambulances.

Let us not quarrel, then, about whether college degrees benefit EMS providers. Let’s talk about college in general, and how it helped a former EMS outsider: me.

As an Eisenhower-era kid, I was more concerned about surviving nuclear winter than earning a living. Some of my friends were focused on careers, but most of us were marking time until we could decide what to do with our lives.

College was a place to figure that out and maybe emerge with some marketable skills. Those of us fortunate enough to attend took classes in buildings named after dead people, passed tests to show we were paying attention, studied when we had to, and tried to accumulate enough credits to graduate. Along the way we learned stuff. We couldn’t help it.

What kinds of stuff? Let’s start by defining learning. I’m talking about lifelong retention, not short-term, curriculum-based brain crams that are as perishable as push doses of adenosine.

Take calculus—please. I had to pass four semesters of that hideous subject; yet ask me now to solve a differential equation, and I’d have a better chance of speaking fluent Hungarian with a French accent.

Here’s what I learned—really learned—by seeking more education than today’s paramedic minimums:

  • Problem-solving. Even for engineers it isn’t all science and math. College tasks us daily with real-life problem recognition and analysis—disciplines that are essential in EMS.
  • Risk tolerance. Committing to a challenging curriculum entails risk. Discovering how and when to bend rules without compromising core values is as important in the people-care business as in academia.
  • Coping with misfortune. College does a superb job of discouraging the childhood notion that unfairness will be fixed by someone smarter and stronger.
  • Time management. When late-night card games get in the way of early-morning classes, it’s time to refocus on priorities—like not failing.
  • Getting along with others. Learning to compromise was a big step for someone like me, with an oppositional-defiant streak. I’m not sure how many future patients and partners would have tolerated me as a 20-year-old.
  • Thrift. I had to work and save for school. Working and saving was pretty good practice for EMS.

I never took classes in any of the above subjects, but mastering those skills was very much part of my higher education. By the time I became a paramedic, the practical knowledge I’d acquired on campus mattered more than what school I’d attended or what I’d majored in. My college experience—much of it outside the classroom—dovetailed nicely with patient-care responsibilities and helped me adapt to the rigors of 9-1-1.

Is college worthwhile? Yes. Go if you can. Just my opinion.

Mike Rubin is a paramedic in Nashville and a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at

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