A Better Reason To Go To College

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Hats in the Air: by RichTea [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Although I have not met her face-to-face, Ellen Mandeville is a stranger I love already. We met online, and she has shown herself a true friend: caring, wise, supportive and with just enough crazy to make me feel right at home. I’m thrilled she’s sharing her story as part of the Words That Changed My World series today.

I have generally been a mediocre student. Clever, but… my teachers would often say looking perplexed at me. But… the motivation was often difficult to find, I might have supplied had I known myself better.

My parents were each the first generation of their respective families to go on to and graduate from a university. My mother is now a retired pharmacist and my late father was an electrical engineer for Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Northrup Corporation in Southern California. The FACT that each of their five children WOULD acquire a university education was in the air we breathed and the water we drank. It was an of course in my mind. Life without a university degree was inconceivable. Being the youngest of five, I watched as each of my two sisters and two brothers graduated from high school and went on to area California State Universities.

I somehow squeaked through my senior year of high school and graduated low in the class. Finished with high school, poor grades in hand, and no driving career ambition led me to enroll at the local City College. There I merely took some acting classes my first year.

The next two years I floundered along in academic classes with continued poor motivation and no life goals for which I was striving. I floundered so badly that I decided to try a fresh start at another nearby City College. See Ellen flounder one more year.

During my elementary, junior high, and high school years, my parents had fretted, yelled, cajoled, and somehow maintained hair on both their heads, while my academic output was fair to middling with several glimpses of excellent work. Now being a parent of two school-aged children, I’m beginning to understand the kind of hell I put them through.

That summer after my fourth failed year of City College, each spoke conversational words that had a profound impact on me. I can still see my mother standing in the kitchen, leaning back against the counter when she quietly asked,

“So what will you do, Ellen? Will you graduate from a college? Or will you get a job with career potential?”

I probably answered something profound like, “I dunno,” but inside small explosion had just gone off.

Suddenly I realized that not going to—nor graduating from—a traditional four year university was a real possibility. Whoa! Stop the scattered thoughts and focus on that piece of news! I actually had to put in the time and effort to make it happen or else it wouldn’t happen.

Breathe, Ellen, breathe.

Later that summer, one of my older sisters was graduated from university. It was a lengthy ceremony under a hot, bright sky. Needing to get out of the sun, my dad invited me to walk with him. We ended up at a campus cafe with beverages in front of us. I felt so grown up—all dressed up with my handsome father—sitting at that cafe.

And he began to talk about the merits of gaining a liberal arts education. He spoke of the founding fathers of the United States having their start with just such an education. I remember him saying, “You love to read, Ellen. You love to learn. Go to college not for a career, but simply for an education.” Oh, gosh, I’m in tears remembering my late father speak words of life into my heart and mind.

Both my parents spoke words I needed to hear that summer. My mother quietly presented my options and my father encouraged me to learn for learning’s sake. I became motivated with a goal.

I went back for two more years at that second City College. Taking advantage of the policy that retaking a class wipes out the old grade and replaces it with the new grade, I quickly improved my GPA. Okay, so … I had to take Biology 101 three (yes three (3) THREE!) times to finally pass. Starting a class by investigating the cell is BORING! *ahem* I had to petition, i.e.: beg, to take the class the third time. I needed a passing grade to qualify for a University of California (UC) school. Well, third time’s a charm. I took that class, applied myself, and earned an “A” thank you very much! The same happened in Chemistry 101 the second time I took it. Occasionally I learn my lessons a little faster.

I did so well my first semester of applying myself that my parents graciously sent me on a semester abroad program to Great Britain. While enjoying all an overseas experience has to offer, I also earned Dean’s Honors. A year later, I applied to various campuses within the UC system. In 1992 I graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a degree in English Literature. The life-giving words my parents spoke motivated me to turn failure into success.


Ellen Mandeville is the Chief Operations Officer at the Character Development Laboratory (aka her house), where God works on both her and her children’s character. She writes with character at www.ellenmandeville.com, and tweets in less than 140 characters on Twitter @ellenmandeville.


Photo credit: Rich Tea via Wiki Creative Commons. Click on image for full details.

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9 thoughts on “A Better Reason To Go To College”

  1. Ellen, Bron and I live in a college town where kids grow up under tremendous pressure not only to go to college but to go to top colleges and succeed mightily. The options your parents presented to you are a necessary corrective for those kids too. Thanks for allowing us to drop into those conversations you had with your mom and dad.

    1. If my rusty memory of college graduate statistics is correct, then roughly 10% of Americans graduate from college, which means that there’s a really big percentage of Americans who live well without a college degree. A few years ago I read the book, _The Millionaire Next Door_,
      which makes a pretty good case that a University degree and financial success possess little correlation or causation.

      1. I’ve thought about “paces” with my own “growing up.” I stood by my Mother’s grave and thought of all the arguments we had while I was a teenager, all the trouble I got into. I’m sure she had more than one sleepless night because of me. But it was too late to say, “I’m sorry.” I never did really get to know her as an adult and am much to poorer for it.

  2. Pingback: A Better Reason To Go To College | Ellen Exploring: seeking truth one post at a—Squirrel!

  3. I hope that I can offer my children the same wisdom your parts imparted to you, Ellen!

  4. Likewise, Lesley! I do want our children to have a university education, but more than that, I want everything they do to be part of following and honoring Jesus.

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