Education’s crucial role in my identity

By Margaret Johnson

Statistically, I will earn 22 percent less than my male coworker. Statistically, I am at the greatest risk of becoming sexually assaulted or a victim of domestic violence. Statistically, I am 70 percent more likely to develop heart disease and 80 percent more likely to suffer a stroke. I am a 21-year-old white female. However, the primary factor of my identity is not my race, gender or age. It’s my education.

I remember myself as young as the age of five when I first heard my father utter the words, “you can’t get married until you’re 30 or have a Ph.D.” It was a condition that I have heard all my life. Partly joking, undoubtedly preferred, education was always of the most importance to my parents. The emphasis on education was no surprise to me as I had grown up the daughter of a teacher and principal, and later the daughter of the director of curriculum.

Growing up, I was “academically gifted.” In elementary school, I aced spelling tests, read hundreds of pages more than my classmates, had the best cursive handwriting and perfected every detail of anything I turned in. My teachers loved me and were always finding opportunities to remind me of my “academic gift.” Throughout my schooling, with the exception of the occasional physics or AP calculus class, school was at its most basic level mundane and unchallenging. Yet, such conditions didn’t leave me exempt of the pressure to succeed or compete. But if you had asked me if I was smart or even confident in my academic abilities, I would have said no. I wasn’t “academically gifted,” I had simply learned how to succeed within a streamlined system of public education.

As a high school senior with college approaching, I cringed at the deduction of points from any test or assignment, became hyperaware of any classmates that might have performed better than I did and became anxious over the subjects that I didn’t excel at—all while maintaining the guise that my academic success happened with a natural effortlessness.

College was always something I assumed was part of growing up. College was a necessity, not an option. I knew from the moment I was five, listening to my dad talk about my Ph.D. as if it were destined, that I would attend college. What I didn’t know was that college would form the most essential part of who I am.

To say the rigor of Lawrence was an adjustment is an understatement. I became further aware that I had been taught to memorize and regurgitate information, to respond to questions with the responses of others, and to pass tests for the sake of passing. I hadn’t been taught to criticize, analyze, or logically and concisely form my own opinions in response to others. I hadn’t been taught to think. And that was scary.

My former identity as an “academically gifted” student seemed to elude me. I felt as though I was starting from scratch. However, this is where my education contributed most to my identity. My professors and classes completely turned my approach to learning upside down—it changed what I thought it meant to be academically successful. I learned that being smart wasn’t about having the best grades or the recitation of material, but rather the ability to communicate and question complex ideas in collaboration rather than in competition with fellow students.

My education has created a person with intellectual curiosity extending beyond the academic realm, an engaged participant and collaborator in the community, someone who no longer views uncertainty with anxiety, but with intrigue. I’ve become someone who has their own ideas; someone who acts on their own ideas. Lawrence has developed within me the most essential parts of my character—creativity, inquisition, confidence and awareness.

I do not consider my primary identity to concern my race, gender or age. My primary identity is as a Lawrentian. However, despite my education at Lawrence, the socially constructed expectations involved with being a female—even an educated female—are still prevalent.

The moment when the father of a Lawrence female asked me if I was getting my “Mrs. Degree” after I had mentioned that I was majoring in English has left a long-lasting impression on me. The implication that I had come to college to find a husband had left me both speechless and offended. The incident made me aware that regardless of how I identified myself, others would always see me differently. That man will never see me for my ambition, passion for learning or true character, but rather my gender. The only effect his comment has had was allowing me to realize just how necessary and empowering my education has been and further motivates me to continue becoming the independent, successful female Lawrentian that I am.

 

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