California State University, Fresno
First Generation Stories

 

 

It's Never Too Late to Get an Education

Robin Button
Web Developer, Academic Affairs

By re-entering college after a 20-year interruption, I not only completed what was unfinished, I developed a rewarding career in a field that didn’t even exist when I attended college in the 1960’s.

Although I worked on campus, it was frightening to return to the classroom after 20 years. How would I fit in with students who were right out of high school? My math background was limited.

I was the oldest of four children of parents who, although they never attended college, encouraged me to go. My father was the sole breadwinner. He never wanted my mother to work outside the home . . . this, in spite of the fact that we were often in dire financial straits and at one point were homeless until we moved in with my grandparents. My mother never challenged his view. “It was just the way things were then,” she says. Unstable and an alcoholic, my father worked various jobs that required the family to move several times cross-country.

The constant moving interrupted my elementary and secondary education, but I always loved school. Reading, writing, and art were my favorite subjects. As soon as I was old enough, I began babysitting and ironing to pay my own expenses. College, I believed, would give me additional skills I needed to support myself, so after high school I enrolled in a junior college, taking courses in Secretarial Science. College was sheer joy! I began dreaming about continuing my education beyond two years.

That dream stalled after my third semester. My father suffered brain damage in a single-car accident. Suddenly my mother, with three children still in school, no work experience and having made few decisions to speak of, became head of the household. She and I teamed up, caring for my father while he was in the hospital, then a convalescent home and eventually our family home. Fortunately, I was able to graduate from junior college, but any future college plans were indefinitely on hold. Instead, I worked full-time, lived at home and contributed financially.

My job exposed me to computing technology; it intrigued me. I encoded data on magnetic tape and transmitted it to a Midwestern location. High-end stuff! Back then, computers were as big as cars. Little did I know the role computers would play in my future.

Years passed and I married a man whose background was similar to mine. Together, we worked to put him through college and raised two sons. I often thought about my own dreams of higher education. The turning point came when a neighbor, an administrator at Fresno State, suggested I apply for a position at the University. I did and was hired as support staff in an academic department.

About that time, the personal computer was becoming a household word. I was a kid in a toy store! Creating documents and solving problems with computers was an art form to me and I enjoyed that in my job at Fresno State. Working with students and watching them achieve academic success inspired me to act on my own long-delayed dream of returning to college. It would be difficult; I still needed to work full-time and my sons were still in school. But my family encouraged me.

Although I worked on campus, it was frightening to return to the classroom after 20 years. How would I fit in with students who were right out of high school? My math background was limited. In high school I’d taken only pre-algebra and geometry . . .  and that had been 25 years ago. My fears proved unfounded and my nervousness soon dissipated. I took some remedial math classes to catch up. Participating in study groups and being a student was fun and I was surrounded by supportive friends and family, some of whom tutored me in math along the way.

As an older student, people sometimes questioned me. For instance, in deciding on my field of study, I wanted a subject I was passionate about. I chose art with an emphasis in art history. “Why on earth would you major in art?” they asked. “Why are you going to college at this stage of the game?” was another question I encountered. “What does it have to do with your ability to earn a living?” At the time, it appeared to have nothing to do with work. I always felt my education was incomplete and I wanted to finish it. And I did. I graduated magna cum laude; my husband, sons and mother proudly watched me receive my degree.

It all came together though the first time I set eyes on a website. Websites seemed to talk to me: Information organization, writing, problem-solving, and art all combined into one. For years, I took advantage of any opportunities within my job at Fresno State to learn website design. Eventually I realized I had to decide whether to stay at my Fresno State job, which I loved, or choose self-employment as a Freelance Web Designer/Developer so I could focus on design. Swallowing hard, I struck out on my own.

My life’s trajectory has surpassed my wildest dreams! Continuing to work, learn, and study brings me immeasurable joy and satisfaction in a field I love that didn’t even exist until the mid 1990’s. My degree in art, combined with my work experience, gives me opportunities I couldn’t have predicted twenty years ago. And, how wonderful to be able to return to my previous employer, Fresno State, and assist them as a web developer.

All of this is vastly entertaining to my 81-year-old mother, who lives around the corner from me. She and I became close during the years of caring for my father, and she became my role model for “taking charge” under daunting circumstances. Now she is happy to watch me make her travel arrangements online and set her up for online banking. It’s never too late to pursue your education. You just never know where it might lead.

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