Today is International Women’s Day. There are so many issues that I could reflect on today; policy inequities, health outcomes, violence against women, workplace discrimination, media representation of women. I could intellectualize, throw up an infographic, or write lists of statistics outlining the oppressed status of women internationally.
Instead, I’m going to tell you a bit about my life.
I was born in a small town. From early on, I excelled in school. When I was 7 years old my teacher began bringing me books from home to read because I’d outgrown the school’s offerings. At 8 years old I won an Oxford English Dictionary- our primary school’s award for the most excelling student. By 9 years old I was one of a small group of students who were pulled out of class to work independently (we had no official “gifted” program). We worked through the math books- racing each other to finish, trying to see who could finish fastest with the most correct answers. We worked on independent writing and research projects. We drove our own creativity. I gave up learning an instrument at 10 years old to continue in French classes. I can go on and on…
I grew up knowing that education was important. Few of my family members had gone to University at that point; however, it as reinforced that I had that potential.
When I moved to America things changed. I couldn’t get into a gifted program because they wouldn’t test me in my first year in the States. I couldn’t take Spanish (the only language offered) because my teachers thought I’d be confused because I already spoke French. I was placed in a math class below my level because the school couldn’t evaluate the British standards and didn’t trust my parents’ evaluation.
I was bored.
I still excelled with straight A’s, and I pushed through until 9th grade when I was able to attend a Liberal Arts Magnet High School. However, in the years between 7th and 9th grade I lost some faith in the education system. And, I lost the opportunity to be creative in the classroom. I was stuck in classes that were not challenging.
In high school, I realized that while I was in the top rungs, I wasn’t the smartest kid on the block. I did not graduate Valedictorian of my class, but one of the top 10 students. I worked throughout high school and participated in extracurricular activities. I learned to choose- work or another AP class? Work. Money was necessary- working class values at play.
I knew I was going to college, but still was lost in the system. No one in my family had been to an American college. I applied to UGA; one of the two schools we were encouraged to go to. I looked at another private college in Atlanta, but knew we couldn’t afford it. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to research colleges, how to look for what I wanted, nor how to apply and be competitive. Still, I was awarded a fellowship to UGA, but not enough money to cover all living and tuition expenses.
Then the Universe stepped in, and I was afforded the opportunity to meet with representatives from a women’s college. I was awarded a full scholarship to Wesleyan College thanks to Mrs. Betty Corn of Columbus, GA. I had never imagined going to a small, all-women’s institution, and I am so glad that I did.
At Wesleyan, I was able to think and grow. I took on leadership roles- from student government, to Co-president of the LGBTQ organization, to Director of the Vagina Monologues for two years. I excelled in my classes and earned both of the college’s two leadership awards for graduating seniors- both the Woman of Excellence and Woman of Achievement awards. One is voted on by the college community and the other by the greater Macon community. I was surprised and thrilled.
Upon my senior year, I still was unsure of my trajectory. I was graduating with a B.A. in English, minor in Psychology, commitment to theater and a passion for social justice. I chose to go into social work.
Part of that decision was emotional. My father had been wrestling with the bear that is for-profit manufacturing management, global outsourcing of jobs, and domestic layoff. I wanted to avoid the pain that for-profit had caused our family. Part of my decision was rational. I’d been working on sexual health and domestic violence activism for three years, while also realizing the gaps that existed to serving LGBTQ folks on those issues. As a self-identified member of the LGBTQ community, I wanted to learn how to do inclusive sexual health promotion and/or dating/domestic violence prevention work. I was less interested in direct service, so I looked for Social Work programs that offered focused programs in Macro work (very few…).
Then, I went to grad school. A Master in Social Work turned into a dual-degree with a Master of Public Health. I learned how to develop community health education programs, think about intentional injury prevention, and root my work in creating justice for individuals and communities. I interned at an amazing organization, which became my first consulting job and then my first full-time social work position. There, I learned to be a manager and moved into senior-level management with the coaching of my Executive Director. I learned that I like to develop programs. To manage communications. To work on multiple projects. To take leadership roles. To work with community members and donors. To speak publicly. To drive growth.
Today, I still work in non-profit and I teach gender studies/human services courses as an Adjunct at a local private college. I think about my experience with education and where it’s brought me to today. I am lucky that I’ve been finding my way through education. I oft wish that I’d had more mentors- folks to help me think about what makes me passionate and how to translate my skills into a professional track. I’ve figured that out slowly- over years of education and work.
At times, I’ve thought, “If I’d only known then, I’d have gotten an MBA.” Other times I think, “If I’d only know then, I’d have gotten a PhD in Queer Studies.” Most days I think, “If I’d only known then, I would still be on the same path I am today. Learning through experience and continuing education.”
So, why go on with this long story of my personal education this International Women’s Day? Because I am thankful. Because I know that I am lucky. In the United States, only 54% of students whose parents only received their high school diploma go on to pursue their bachelor’s degree. This statistic is compared to the 82% of students whose parents received their bachelor’s degree that go on to college (Russo, John and Sherry Linkon. 2005). Neither of my parents attained a B.A. though my dad did earn the equivalent of an Associate’s degree. I was the first woman in my family to go to college. The first woman to go to graduate school. I remember my father’s pride and tears on my graduation day. I know what it meant to him for me to graduate.
Yes, I was a high-achieving student. However, I’m not going to put my success down to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality”. I benefited from having resources (teachers who encouraged me, parents and family members who believed in me), privilege (being White, my father and mother bringing our family firmly into the Middle class, having English as a first language as an immigrant to the U.S., heck- growing up in a developed country) and access (attending a Magnet school, receiving a scholarship to pay for college). Many young women across the globe do not have the resources, privileges, and access that I did to education.
According to the Global Partnership for Education,
There are 775 million adults in the world who cannot read. Nearly two-thirds of them are women. Over half of the 61 million children not in primary school are girls. We need to change this.
Educating girls has benefits not just for themselves but also for their families, communities and countries. With a quality education, girls can help improve their country’s social and economic well-being.
I realize that I am one of the lucky 1/3 of women globally who have enjoyed access to consistent, structured education from 4 years old onward. This International Women’s Day, I want to do my part to draw attention to the importance of educating women and girls from all backgrounds. And, I want to thank those people (and HaShem) for supporting my journey through education- from primary school through the present day.