Pam modeled for me that girls belonged in college
My cousin Pam probably doesn’t know this, but she was the first college girl I ever knew. I now know that other women friends of my mother, and of course, my Aunt Millie, had gone to college, but Pam, my first cousin on my mother’s side, was in college when I was still in grade school. She visited us once while on summer break and brought me a jacket from her school, State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I wore it with pride. “This is my cousin Pam’s jacket!” I would say when asked where it came from. “She goes to a teachers’ college in Plattsburgh, New York.”
Although neither of my parents graduated college, the idea that a girl could go stayed with me. I had only recently arrived at St. Joseph’s Academy and was excited to think about what college life might hold for me. Sitting down with the school’s guidance counselor felt like a big step in that direction.
I had no idea what I wanted to be, what career I might choose—in those days becoming a teacher was still one of the top options available for girls, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that—so I was looking forward to discussing the possibilities with someone whose job it was to guide me.
Sitting in Sister Marie Eleanor’s cramped office on the second floor of the school, I bubbled with excitement. I couldn’t wait to hear about all the career choices that lay ahead of me. I loved English and history. Maybe I could find something that combined those. Or what about psychology or anthropology? I loved reading about Margaret Mead. Or maybe I’d be an explorer/scientist like Jane Goodall. I had followed her since grade school and imagined myself heading off to Africa to study chimpanzees with her. So many possibilities, so many doors to open.
My dreams were quickly dashed, however, when the first thing Sister Marie Eleanor said to me was:
“You’ll only go to college long enough to find a husband, so take classes you enjoy and don’t worry about graduating.”
I sat back in my chair. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What?” I replied. “I don’t plan to find a husband.” I said incredulously. “That’s not why I want to go to college.”
“Oh, you’ll see,” she said. “Any plans you make will get interrupted as soon as the right boy comes along.”
Fortunately, because of Pam, I didn’t believe her. I knew she was wrong — probably one of the first times I ever openly disagreed with a nun — because I knew my cousin Pam. Pam showed me that I could go to college for something more than a husband.
I went on to study psychology and then eventually social work, which guided much of my professional life. And I never did find that husband! I credit it all to having an early role model that laid out another path for young girls in the 1960s and 70s.
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