An African proverb says “Educate a man and you educate a man. Educate a woman and you educate a nation.
I grew up in a home where education was important. My dad received a Bachelor’s degree from BYU when I was a toddler, and a few years later when I was in first grade, my mother received hers.
Later, my dad earned a Master’s degree in Linguistics, and when my mother was a new grandma, she earned a Master’s degree in Education. All of my five siblings have Bachelor’s degrees and several have Master’s degrees. I’ve been blessed that education is just something we do.
I am the oldest of the bunch. I left high school at 16, after my junior year, and went to college. At age 19, I had an Associate’s degree in Nursing from BYU and started working as a Registered Nurse. Then, I followed the path that many LDS women follow: I married and become a mom. Again and again and again, I gave birth to four children, and my husband and I also adopted 20 children, from 8 different countries, over a period of about 20 years. As you can imagine, I was REALLY busy with things at home for quite some time.
I loved (and still love) being a mom. I have learned things as a mother that I believe I personally could learn no other way: organization skills, networking, sales (did you ever try to “sell” a toddler on broccoli, or a teenager on chores? Mad sales skills, I tell ya. Mad sales skills), multi-tasking like a boss, budgeting, creativity, patience, work ethic (what’s a 40-hour work week? I have no idea). Katherine Ellison in her book, The Mommy Brain, looked at the effects of a woman’s brain after becoming a mother. Certain factors are heightened, such as efficiency, resilience, emotional intelligence, motivation, and perception. It’s been a tremendous blessing in my life to be a mother.
At the same time, I always felt like I wanted to #EmbraceYourAnd and have other interests beyond my role of mother. I have no question that I am a better mother because of the “other” things I have learned and done. I love to learn, and in fact, I believe life-long learning to be a key trait for all leaders. I’ve accumulated and read hundreds, if not thousands, of books. I’ve gone to seminars and conferences. I’ve “learned by doing” by learning to blog (many years ago), learning to be a midwife, learning the political process to the point that I won a special election and served in the Utah House of Representatives for a while, and learned to “play” in the communication space – traditional media, digital media, writing, speaking, you name it, I love it.
I always knew I would go back to college someday and finish a Bachelor’s degree. In May of 2014, 30 years after earning that first degree, I started back to school, pursuing a degree in Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations.
It took a little bit of getting used to – assignments, deadlines, homework for Mom and not just for kids. “What do you mean I have a 10-page paper due in two hours?” I completely missed quizzes in my first classes because I forgot to check deadlines online. Oops. I was worried when I started that it might be “too hard,” but I quickly realized that was not so, that the 30 intervening years had not been wasted.
Here are some of the things I found to be an advantage of a “non-traditional” student:
School wasn’t all rosy. Some of the assignments felt like meaningless minutiae. I wish there were more flexibility in waiving some basic classes for someone with 50 years of life experience. I was often the only one over 30 in my in-person classes, and that was kind of awkward. Most of the time, I was older than my professors. Some of the kids assigned to do group projects with me did not appreciate working with someone who had other things in life besides school and dating. Switching from writing in a casual, short-form blog style to long-form, annotated academic style was a bit of a struggle. Stats is still a struggle.
In the end, I graduated with honors, with that Bachelor’s degree in April 2016. In August 2016, I started a Master’s degree program. I was barely three weeks into it when I realized the questions I want to answer, questions about Mormon women as a muted group, will not be answered with a Master’s degree. When I told my husband, “Guess what? I want a doctorate.” He responded, “I knew you would. You might even want more than one.”
I try to live by this creed from Mark Twain: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
I did it. So can you.
Holly Richardson is a wife, mother, Mormon, midwife, communications expert, political aficionado, lover of travel and learning, addicted to humanitarian service, Master’s student and the Utah Women and Education Initiative Coordinator at Utah Valley University.