GUEST BLOGGER: Learning is a Life-Long Journey, Not a Destination
Recently, a childhood classmate of mine shared a photo of our kindergarten class on social media. There we were in our green plaid Catholic school uniforms, most of us only four or five years old at the time. As people, we were still shiny and new with our entire lives in front of us. I am in the right-hand corner of the photo with a toothless smile on my face. I loved going to school then. I still love going to school. But more importantly, I love to learn.
My parents never graduated from college. My father never graduated from high school. Instead, he enlisted in the United States Navy during WWII. Still, both of my parents believed in education, and all the many doors that can be opened when one’s mind is opened. I have three older brothers and my mother and father never pushed us, but they encouraged us. There was something about being at our dinner table each night that fostered our desire to learn. The discussions, never forced, were about current events, politics, religion, and a host of other topics. There were arguments and disagreements, but I’ve never been in a more welcoming classroom. We grew up in an urban area of New Jersey, and we struggled financially. My parents could never afford to send any of us to college. That was clear early on in our lives. Yet still, my brothers and I all attended college and graduate school. Our lack of financial means would never be a barrier as we pursued our life’s passions.
The only thing traditional about my education is how non-traditional it has been. After graduating from high school, I worked as an administrative assistant for an investment bank in New York City. Each day, I took the bus from New Jersey into Manhattan. The work was demanding, and the days were long, but the company paid for my tuition so that I could attend college part-time. Each weeknight, I would leave my desk job to attend classes at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. Some nights I would not get home until after 10 p.m. Other nights even later, as many times I had to return to work to finish a project.
I eventually moved to Boston and transferred my remaining credits to Boston College, which I also attended part-time while having a full-time job. I again worked for a company that partially paid for my tuition. I also used settlement money from a car accident I had been in years before to help pay for the rest of my tuition. It took me much longer than four years to get my undergraduate degree in English, but it was well worth it. I graduated from Boston College with honors a full year after my first child was born. There were many nights and even a few Saturdays when my husband would drive me to school with our little girl in her baby carrier in the back seat.
There is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful to have earned my college degree. There were many times I wanted to give up. There were also times I took needed breaks in between semesters either for logistical, emotional, or financial reasons. But I never stopped. And, it was not just about the degree that I earned on paper. My life was richer because of the people I met, the other students working and failing and succeeding right alongside me, the professors who opened my world in ways that would have remained closed, and the mentors who took the time out of their lives to counsel and advise me.
By the time my third child was born, I had just earned a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College. My English degree was the steppingstone that helped lead me into a career as a reference librarian. It was something I always wanted to pursue. While my formal education took a somewhat circuitous route, I never wavered in my dedication to life-long learning. The seeds that my parents planted were deep, and the only way they would grow is if I would tend to them. My husband and I have tried to teach our own children to be open, learn as much as you can as often as you can.
I’ve read many articles that say college is too expensive, and not at all worth it. I cannot disagree that college is expensive. I have two children who attended college, and our third child is a Sophomore at Syracuse University. I do, however, disagree about it’s worth. What one learns in a college classroom is only a fraction of what one learns at college. It’s not about being book smart; it’s about being open. Open to others who are different than you, open to learning how to live with others, open to learning that there is always much more to learn. It’s hard work, all of it. But it is important, and it is life-altering in ways one could never imagine.
In June 2019, at 58 years old, I walked in what “might” be my last graduation ceremony. I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. I attended the program full time, and for the first time, finished on time. It has been a life-long dream of mine to be a writer. There is an age-old argument about whether an MFA is worth it. After all, you do not need a degree to be a writer. But I needed this. And, as soon as I began my graduate studies, I was struck by all the things I did not know.
I learned more in my two years at Lesley, as a middle-aged empty nester, than I have ever learned before. There were other writers there who enriched my own life by sharing their life stories. There were poets whose words touched me and spoke to me in a language I’d never heard before. It wasn’t so much that I learned to write. I learned to appreciate writing and writers and anyone who has a story to tell. And, I finally realized what it was my parents had tried to teach us all those years ago at the dinner table—that living and learning are about possibilities—and the endless pursuit of all things possible.
Maribeth Stratford Millar lives in Bedford, MA and has an MFA in Creating Writing from Lesley University. Her favorite things to do are write, read and travel.