At 18, I thought I was a failure. I was a Manchester High National Honor Society member, and I wasn’t going to college. I’d expected to attend Bennington in Vermont. There I could combine my love of music and theater with a political science major to prepare for law school. Naively, I didn’t apply anywhere else. I never considered I wouldn’t have enough money. Bennington was then the country’s most expensive school.
So I took a job at The Travelers writing group insurance contracts. I saved all I could from my $45 a week salary to enroll at the University of Connecticut. My savings lasted one semester. I went back to work. Eighteen months later I married, then had children. College seemed remote.
In sixteen years, I tried again. This time I needed a degree to get a better-paying job. I was now a working single mother trying to raise, support and educate four children. I got a scholarship to Trinity College in Hartford. Long before I finished I had a great opportunity for a marketing position 800 miles away in Cleveland. I took it. Once gain, I left school.
Decades passed. With my children grown, I applied to Skidmore College’s University without Walls program. This time I didn’t expect or need a college education. I wanted it. I’d built a decent career. I’d learned marketing and communications skills on the job from some of the best in the business.
Yet I felt like I’d been skating on top of the pond. I wanted to swim, to find out what was beneath the surface. At Skidmore I did just that, focusing on liberal arts courses that would expand and deepen my knowledge. This time I got my B.A.
At my 2007 commencement I reflected on the value of my Skidmore education as I watched honorary doctorates go to former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, Pulitzer Prize winning Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse and sculptor, writer and filmmaker Nora Naranjo-Morse. Brokaw reminded me how reading Aquinas influenced my opinion of the Iraq War. Greenhouse brought to mind the endless Supreme Court cases I’d trudged through to better understand activist vs. constructionist views of the Constitution. Naranjo-Morse made me think of my struggle and ultimate satisfaction in comparing James Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy with T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.
My route to a degree was not typical. But it taught me the value of nourishing your mind throughout life-not just the fast-food learning that prepares you for a job, but education that digs into the past to inform the present, that challenges beliefs, attitudes and opinions; that opens minds to new ideas and adds context and meaning to every endeavor. To me, this is the basis for sound decision-making, the foundation for enlightened leadership. It makes us better in our work, with our families, in everything we do.
I believe in learning for life.