She had kids and 50 years of living. Next she needed a college degree

Marylhurst University, Exterior Photographs, 09-29-2011
Marylhurst University, Exterior Photographs, 09-29-2011 Marylhurst University

On June 17, 1984, I received my bachelor’s degree from Marylhurst College, the oldest degree-granting institution in Oregon. All of my family were there except for my second son, who had been married the day before and had previous commitments.

I gave a graduation speech. Everyone did. Instead of listening to a speaker who knew nothing about us, each student in our class of 40 was allotted three minutes to speak if they wished to do so. Most did. We were there a really long time, but it was very inspiring.

It had taken me more than 30 years to get that shiny bachelor’s degree. I had one year at Gonzaga in Spokane. Then, just as my dad had predicted, I found a suitable husband and school days were over for 30 years.

By 1983, a new widow with three young children to raise and no discernible job skills, I was desperate to tempt potential employers with a degree that came with practical work qualifications. I needed to get that degree in a few odd hours every week.

There seemed no way until I heard of Marylhurst. Just south of Portland, it offered an innovative class structure suited to adult learners who had to work for a living.

First of all there was algebra. I had never passed it. I was pretty sure I never would.

Sister Claire MacIsaacs would hear none of it. Knowing I taught community art classes she said, “Of course, you can do algebra. You’re an artist — mixing paint is all algebra.” So I spent the whole semester creating and recording color formulas — and I passed algebra!

There were weekend classes, where students moved into the dorms, enjoyed a taste of college life and worked intensively at one class day and night. At the end of the weekend we emerged, with a semester’s work done in courses such as anthropology or business administration. After a final paper, one or two more credits were added toward our degree. More complex classes met for two or three weekends.

The experience that changed my life, though, was being part of the prior learning program. I’ve never encountered anything like the one offered at Marylhurst.

Credit was granted, based on the student’s having mastered during their earlier life a subject well enough to teach it. It was necessary to create a course outline, and include all of the topics that would be covered in a college catalog. The student would then present the class to a panel of teachers, instead of the other way around.

I certainly had no accomplishments. I was sure of that. But I had learned to care for six children by myself while their dad was deployed with the army for more than a year.

Yes! That would be Early Childhood Education, wouldn’t it? I had created a Recreation Service for the Red Cross in Bangkok and voila! Volunteer management. Death and Dying – oh, I sure knew about that.

If this sounds easy, it was not. Each class was meticulously checked and verified. At the end of this experience, I had credits enough to shave another year off the journey to my degree. Best of all, I was jubilant to discover I had not wasted 50 years of my life.

At home, I began to “shop” the various colleges in the area for classes that would fill in the gaps remaining in my requirements. Students were allowed to employ needed credits from any accredited institution in the area, so I took public speaking at Pacific Lutheran, broadcasting at U Dub and one class at a time, filled in the blanks, without having to repeat what I already knew.

On that afternoon in 1984, I felt fully prepared to use everything I’d learned.

On May 17 of this year, Marylhurst University announced that, falling victim to soaring expenses and dwindling enrollment, it will close at the end of 2018. Other students will not enjoy the practical education that made such a difference in my life. I couldn’t have managed without the incomparable faculty showing me the tools I already had and what I needed.

I don’t know why there are not more opportunities for practical education, but luckily the most important lessons are learned after graduation. I asked my youngest son for the most important lesson he’d learned since college. He didn’t have to think.

"Sleep when the baby sleeps," he said.

That’s what I mean. Practical.

Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional humorist, columnist, author and broadcaster. Reach her at PO Box 881, DuPont, WA 998327. Phone 800-548-9264. Podcast, Swimming Upstream on website www.itsnevertoolate.com. Email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate.com.