by Judy McCarrick and Lynn Wenzel
Since August’s program honors re-entry women with scholarships, we decided to write about our own experiences as college re-entry women.
Some people graduate from high school, go to college, get a job and get married, in that order. Can you imagine! Not me, I had to do it the hard way! I was married at 20 just after completing my first two years of college. By the time I was 21, our first child was born in 1965. Jeff worked full-time, attended college four nights a week and completed his army reserve commitment on the weekends. We rarely saw each other and I was mostly a single parent. We lived in Los Angeles at the time. Jeff finally graduated from USC and we had our second child in 1970. At that time, he went for a position in sales in New York and got it.
It was a huge upheaval for us, leaving family, friends and our home. But, we were young and, at first, it was exciting. Still, shortly after we had moved and settled in New Jersey, I became dispirited and depressed. It was hard times then. Jeff was gone all the time. I was home with two little kids, no car, no job, no friends yet and my first experience of an eastern winter. Both kids were sick all the time and we had practically no money. Most of all, who was I?
After a year of feeling miserable, the light dawned. I needed to find meaning for me! That meant going back to school. Our arrangement was not easy and, as I was strongly flexing my feminist muscles, the arguments flew. There were times I doubted the marriage would make it. By now I had begun writing. I wrote at the kitchen table with kids running in and out and a thousand interruptions an hour including cleaning house, washing, preparing dinner, making lunches and helping with homework. When Jeff came home from work, I would leave for my half hour drive to the university. I did this four nights a week. On the weekends I worked for an industrial bakery to help pay for classes, among other things. I unloaded huge trucks full of pastries and bread onto flats, rolled these into the warehouse and stacked them on shelves. I didn’t mind the hard work, but I hated being the only woman among many men. There was no way I could avoid seeing their pictures of naked women on the walls or hearing their sexist jokes. I learned to keep an unreadable expression and did homework on my lunch hour.
I graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1975. Although I had double majored in Literature and Social Work, I realized as soon as I graduated that I wanted to be a writer and NOT a Guidance Counselor. And so I became one. But it was years of articles, short stories, poetry and newspaper assignments before I found a publisher for my first book in 1989. Shortly thereafter, I went to work for a national and international feminist newsmagazine and eventually became Managing Editor. And the rest is history.
I understand the struggle for self-realization and the drive to claim self-singularity along with the absolute need to support a family while going to school. I also deeply understand my own privilege, for although no one ever helped us out financially and we didn’t have fancy vacations or material things, I was not a single parent and I was white. Recent events in the news make clear what an advantage this was and is!
We all have our stories, including this August’s awardees. I wish them all the success they so richly deserve as they pursue their own dreams.
In my thirty-fifth year, in the mid-seventies, I found myself at one of those cross roads that we reach during our lives. I was a newly-divorced single mother of five young children. I had a Bachelor’s degree in American and English Literature and no job. My family could not possibly survive on the child support payments ordered by the court, even if they were reliably made. I had some big decisions to make. The first was to find a job with a paycheck that would not be completely absorbed by childcare expenses.
An elementary school in a low-income neighborhood in my city had recently received government funding to create a library and I was hired for this short-term task. During the nine months I worked at the school, I was also asked to take over classrooms periodically so that the teachers could take breaks. It was in those classrooms that I decided to return to university to obtain a teaching credential, but after years of spousal abuse I had low self-esteem and little confidence in my own ability to succeed. Even though I had a burning desire to do so, I felt I just wasn’t smart enough to teach. And I had no extra money for tuition and books.
Then something shifted. The catalyst for me was the Women’s Movement. I read about changes women all over the country were demanding for themselves. I listened to speeches by Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer and other feminists. I marched, with my youngest daughter in her stroller, on behalf of equal pay. I began to transform and to believe that I could accomplish whatever goal I set for myself.
So, with trembling hands, I filled out the application for graduate school at San Diego University and was admitted for Fall Semester just before I turned thirty-six. In the seventies, the term “re-entry student” had not yet been coined, and there were no scholarships offered for women my age and in my circumstances. The counselor at SDSU’s Financial Aid office suggested that I wait until my children were older and then re-think my goal. I took his (yes, HIS) words as a challenge and insisted that as an admitted student, I was entitled to some financial support from the University, and he finally said, “Well, yes, you do qualify for a student loan.” I swallowed hard and signed the papers for a $15,000 loan, more than I had ever seen or borrowed in my life. That loan, and a part-time job teaching English as a Second Language, saw me through the next two years of graduate school.
The day I received my K-12 bi-lingual credential I was offered a full-time job at the school where I had done my student teaching. But the same day, I was offered a different job teaching ESL at San Diego State with the caveat that I would pursue a Masters Degree. I chose the University job. I worried that it was the right choice, because although it meant a bigger paycheck, it also obligated me to at least two more years of study. Now I know it was the right decision. Teaching and studying, receiving my Masters in Linguistics, led next to a position at UC Santa Cruz where I eventually became an Assistant Dean of University Extension, Director of International Programs and Director of Summer Session.
It took eight years to re-pay my $15,000 student loan, and it took nearly as long for me to truly believe that I was a capable, intelligent woman, qualified to handle any job I chose.
For every woman who has an educational goal and who thinks she may not reach it, I say YOU CAN. My own experiences have demonstrated that with determination and the knowledge that with even a handful of friends and family are cheering you on, you can reach any goal you set for yourself. This is why I feel such a deep connection to our Business Women of Nevada County Scholarship Program. This is why I know that even a $1000 scholarship can make an enormous difference in the life of a re-entry woman. The realization that a whole organization of women successful women believe in you, is every bit as important and valuable as the amount of the scholarship itself.