Mother's Day appreciation (part I): Why Mom went back to school.

In honor of Mother's Day, I want to celebrate the ways that mothers have blazed trails, knocked down barriers, and challenged expectations of what their daughters' lives can be.
When we're young, we don't always appreciate how important our parents (or other adults in our circle) can be as role models. Part of this, I think, is that a kid's world is smaller in some important ways. What you know of the world you know through school, through friends, through cartoons, and through your family. Lots of aspects of the wider world don't really pop up in your consciousness until you have to confront them as an adult yourself.

I would not be who I am or where I am today without my mom, Sally Stemwedel. Although I probably couldn't (or wouldn't) fully grasp it when I was a kid, when she went back to school in her mid-30s my mother opened up my understanding of the world of higher education and of science, and offered me a vision of a woman's work that the society at large did not. Given all the ways that her journey helped me to navigate - and even to imagine - my own educational and career path, I asked her if I could interview her for a set of posts here. I'm very grateful that she agreed.

Part I: What drives a suburban mother of four back to school?


By my reckoning, you went back to school when I was 11. What was the driving force that got you out of the house and into the physics classroom?

Four children -- you four children - could or would drive anyone crazy. (As you told me then, it was less of a drive than a short putt.) In college I had fallen in love with astronomy (which I took to get out of taking physics with a math major). When I had been full-time mom for over 5 years, the astronomy itch overcame any sensible judgment I had left. I decided I would rather try to be an astronomer and fail than always wonder whether I could have been one. I was blessed with a supportive spouse and a good friend (also with four children) who both encouraged me to try.

Didn't you have an astronomy-related internship/job at the Smithsonian lined up for after your Wellesley graduation? My recollection is that Dad's Navy posting got in the way of that happening. How hard was it to see that fall through? Did missing out on this opportunity add to your determination to go back later?

Ah, you were listening! A mother always wonders. I had landed a job offer to work for a Wellesley grad at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Dorothy Weeks, who at age 70+ was determining (and publishing) Fe absorption spectral lines that were finally able to be generated in the lab. (Absorption lines are what we have to work with in astronomical measurements.) Your father's ship was suddenly decommissioned and he was reassigned from Rhode Island to South Carolina. When I met with Dr. Weeks at SAO to tell her I could not take the job, I actually broke down and cried (and I am not a crier). From her vantage point of life experience (she had had jobs in many other areas besides physics, including as a buyer for Filene's department store), she assured me that if I wanted to do astronomy enough I would eventually get there. I hung onto her words.

About dodging the physics the first time around ... what were the main issues there? Was it not well taught? Were you psyching yourself out because of the hearsay and innuendo about physics?

I made a strategic error, and got bad guidance at college. I had started as a math major, and had to fulfill all the other requirements (the only thing I placed out of was the first math course). I took astronomy first year and loved it, but I guess I did not talk to my advisor about it. By the time my second year was ending, I needed to declare a major and have it approved. I declared astro, but had not taken any physics in college. My advisor insisted that I take physics that summer (although it was not offered during the summer at Wellesley, of course). So I took physics at a Big Ten school near home. The class was populated primarily with jocks who had failed it before and so was dumbed-down significantly. When I got back to taking physics at Wellesley I had insufficient prep (and a first year teacher finding her audience). I took some additional physics, but by senior year elected to stay a math major, complete all the astronomy, do a research project in astronomy, but not take the additional physics required for the astro major. I was getting married shortly after graduation and could not deal with digging my way out of the physics hole I had gotten into.

If you had a time machine and could zip back to give yourself some advice or information on the eve of going back to school, what would it be? (Of course, while we have the time machine checked out, you also have the option of giving yourself information or advice on the eve of your graduation from Wellesley ...)

Would that be advice on the logic/financial benefit/stress of this course of action versus just getting a job programming computers for a bank? We all know what that advice would be.
I'm not a big fan of the idea of knowing what will happen in the future (as your question might imply). But that opinion is grounded in life events a while after finishing my grad work, which I am sure I did not want to know about in advance.

I guess I would tell my younger self that stubbornness, channeled effectively, can be a major asset. It can help you get places that native ability alone cannot.

Was going back to school harder than your first-run undergraduate experience? Was going back to school *easier* than your first run undergraduate experience?

Yes, and no. I haven't ever thought about this comparison, per se.

When I did undergraduate, it was my, and everyone else's expectation that I could do it, even though I put myself in a situation some measure beyond my preparation. Because of expectations, I had no choice in my mind but to succeed. By the end of undergraduate I had developed the wish to go on to do graduate work, even though I was deficient in the amount of physics I had mastered. After graduation I followed expectation (and my wishes) to marry and accompany my spouse through his last year of the Navy, have his children, and provide some level of support through his study of law. My grad school was put on hold.

When I went back to school 13 years after getting my math degree, I WANTED to do it, and HOPED I could succeed. My focus was much sharper, because I was only taking undergraduate physics to determine whether I could go on in astronomy. I don't think anybody (other than two aforementioned supporters) thought I could succeed.

I don't remember you actually asking us kids whether we thought you could succeed. I know that if you had, my answer would have been "Yes!" I thought you could do anything.
Besides, I could always return home and bake cookies like the good suburban mother I had been trying to be. I bake good cookies. I had a fallback strategy.

Think hard about this; I'm sure there were some important things you had figured out that helped you.

It was scary going back to calculus-based physics after not having though about calculus or physics for 13 years. Preparation is important; I did do some review in the couple of months before classes began.

I was focused on the task, and on the goal. They were real, and in real-time. The distractions were there, but revolved around family, and work. I did not go looking for all the other things that had distracted me in undergraduate.

I'm going to be very good and not ask about those undergraduate distractions ...
The driving force on this focus was that if I didn't I would end up back at home. Great motivation -- thanks.

But having that fallback, and lowered expectations all around me, reduced some of the anxiety. It was either that or the lack of time to worry about much of anything except getting through my schedule.

In going back to do what amounted to an undergraduate physics major, you were already looking forward to doing graduate work that would let you get into astronomy. But you were also working under some serious geographical constraints from the point of view of undergraduate and graduate programs. How did you choose the programs?

The geographic constraint I call "the mother's rubber-band radius: How far can you get and still be home in time to fix dinner? With a very understanding husband and 4 children ranging from 11.5 down to 4 years old, that radius was 50 miles from home at maximum. We were in a metropolitan area that offered a variety of institutions in that radius.

I picked the undergraduate program by going to the library (before the internet) and looking at college catalogs to determined who offered undergraduate physics courses most like the ones I had not taken (or had had trouble with) the first time. I then called the winning department, Rutgers-Newark (25 miles from home) and explained my intentions to the department secretary. Always trust the instincts of a good academic department secretary; she/he has generally been in the department longer than the chairman and knows all the players AND their ability to interact effectively with students.

Can I just interject that this piece of advice probably did me more good, in both my graduate programs, than anything else that was supposed to prepare me for graduate school?

In this case, the department secretary said: "You should talk to Prof. Charles Pine; he counsels lots of students." She was right. Dr. Pine met with me, encouraged me to start back a step, to secure the basics. I proceeded to take 1 or 2 courses a semester for the next four years, getting good upper level undergraduate physics firmly under my control. It gave me recent transcript credentials worthy of consideration by grad schools (4.0, all physics).
This also began an academic and work relationship with Dr. Pine that lasted for the next 8 years. He became my mentor, in physics and on his outreach program developing and implementing an elementary algebra curriculum. My definition of a mentor is someone who believes in you so visibly and incessantly that you have to begin to believe in yourself. The actions can take many forms in different circumstances, but each of us who has had a mentor can tell you ways that person's actions changed the course of our lives at the time, and with lasting effects.
Working for Dr. Pine taught me a lot more about my capabilities. I probably delayed my graduate work, but the project allowed me to be passionate about what I was doing, and kept me in reasonable proximity to home at most crucial times. It allowed the children to get older, gain responsibility, and work out how dinner gets on the table and clean laundry gets into drawers when mom is MIA some evenings and most days.

Comments are off for this post

  • Bill says:

    The whole entry is gold, but this:

    My definition of a mentor is someone who believes in you so visibly and incessantly that you have to begin to believe in yourself.

    is really going to stick with me (I still hope, against all evidence, to be a PI -- and thus a mentor -- one day).
    Janet, thanks for this post; Sally, thanks for Janet!

  • Bardiac says:

    What a great idea! I'm so impressed that your Mom went back to school.
    Did you find her commitment to education influential when you went to college, too?

  • chezjake says:

    I agree with Bill on that mentor definition, although that could also be one of the best definitions of a parent as well.
    My own mom waited to go grad school until I was in college and my brother was in high school -- also Rutgers, but the Masters of Library Science program, where she also was 4.0.
    Great post!

  • Alan Kellogg says:

    Good on your mom.
    My mom went back to school because she wanted a better life for her three. She also wanted to get her PHD in biology. And then there was the matter of her middle child, me. A boy already showing the problems that come with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. She wanted to be in a position where no-one could abuse her son under the guise of helping him.
    She already had her Bachelors. But war, and then marriage, had interrupted her eductation. So, when I was six, she set out to finish the job. Got her Masters, work as an associate professors at San Diego State College. Then later, when State went condo, became an associate professor of biology at a local community college. She also taught nursing (registered nurse), zoology, and high school English during summer. In 1973 she was supposed to take a one year sabbatical to attend classes at teh University of California at San Diego to earn that PHD. She died from pancrititis complications on Oc. 22, 1973.

  • Alan, thanks for sharing your mom's story -- she sounds like she was really a force to be reckoned with. (There's another story that at some point in the future my mom may agree to share about why she didn't get to her Ph.D. It was a catastrophic-illness kind of thing, but it was my dad's.)
    Bill and chezjake, I love that definition of a mentor, too. Finally having it in writing this spring (owing to the interview), I was able to use it (with proper attribution) in the session of my "Ethics in Science" course where we discussed mentoring.
    Bardiac, I definitely had my mother's commitment to education (and her killer GPA) at the front of my consciousness when I started college, but I didn't really start to appreciate just what she had done till I got to grad school and faced down the psychological chasm one has to bridge to see oneself as a potential "grown-up" in a discipline. I *really* got it when I was trying to juggle finishing writing a dissertation with babies.

  • Bill says:

    the psychological chasm one has to bridge to see oneself as a potential "grown-up" in a discipline
    I'd really, really like it if you would write more about this.

  • AJK says:

    Fascinating. Thank you. I recall Charles Pine's name gracing the cover of the "Algebra Project" text at CTY Lancaster back in '86 or '87.
    Happy Mother's Day to both of you!

  • Alan Kellogg says:

    Janet,
    She used to stare down football players in her class. I swear, the woman could intimidate rottweilers. Drenched and starving stray cats on the other hand...
    In sixth grade I decided that IQ tests were crap, and refused to take one that year. I was assigned an IQ of something like 80, no consideration given to my school work. Mom gave me hell. She gave the schoolboard Hell with the Abyss on the side. I got to re-take the test, and this time scored 153 for an IQ. Which convinced me that far from being crap, IQ tests are an alligator sculpted from feces. ifkwimaityd

  • Janet,
    There are, of course, thousands of women like your mom who contribute everything they have nearly everyday to one kind of building-up, or another... family, community, neighbors, knowledge, science, and so on. It's peculiar, I think, that there isn't more emotional, social, and financial support for these women as they navigate their way through their various roles and life stages.
    Why are shifts in a person's attention considered odd or disonant when each contribution is of inestimable value, and each experience broadens the person's experience and enriches the perspective they bring to each activity?
    As I've looked at the demand for human talent over the next 20-years or so, we have a genuine challenge to meet. College attainment levels have flattened, too few people are pursuing science and engineering careers, the influx of overseas talent through our graduate schools has slowed due to political conditions and competition from vastly improved higher education programs in home countries or regions.
    We need your mom, and all the other moms and dads, and to keep their talent and knowledge in the economy. In addition to outstanding graduates schools, there are a plethora of fine professional studies and continuing education programs at hundreds of institutions across the country, and a growing number of innovative online and intensive programs aimed at updating skills, knowledge, and enhancing transferable competencies for those who have rediscovered a fundamental passion for a field they passed on in their youth as priorities shifted their focus to more secure or lucrative occupations.
    A first and critical step for many people in that position is to gather their experience, skills, knowledge, and aspirations and put them into some organized framework. Too many of us bounce around inside our own head trying to sort through incredibly complex and interdepent actions trying to make sense of "where we really are... what we really have to offer... how to fill the gaps... how to tell our story... how to re-establish old networks" or create new ones.
    In the past year, many college and university based continuing education programs have collaborated to establish a comprehensive free,online, Personal Career Management system, CareerPath. This is a system that helps a person organize and assess their diverse assets into a highly graphical and meaningful framework designed for personal assessment, planning, and personal marketing. Most of the participating schools are offerring this service to current students (adult-learners in graduate, undergraduate, and professional non-degree programs) as well as alumni and prospective students (many of whom are people returning to work or making a transition to a new field).
    The URL I am including here will take people to a list of the participating colleges and universities. They can select the one they would like to affiliate with or select their alma mater, if its participating in the National Talent Market Initiative, a collaboration of the University Continuing Education Association and NavAgility, LLC, the company that provides the technology. The service is free, does not carry advertising, and access to the individual content is under the absolute and total control of the individual who creates the record.The sponsoring schools use the service to interact with members who join their branded domain, both to evaluate emerging program needs and provide other career related student services.
    http://www.navagility.com/nvrr/site/index.php?pg=ntmipm.
    The personal career management competency is indispensable, I think, for people seeking fulfillment in the emerging career environment. Employers are increasingly disinclined and ill equipped to look out for your individual best interest (if they every were). It's you, your skills, knowledge, interest, and character that matter. Most important, perhaps, for those who are resuming a career, the database contains tens of thousdands of CareerPath profiles that you can search, using criteria that will return profiles of people who are similar to you in some fashion, or are pursuing similar goals. Seeing how other people have navigated similar spaces can be a great help, a great confidence builder an eye opener.
    By the way, San Jose State is a member of UCEA though not a CareerPath affiliate. Maybe your institution should look into providing this service for its community. I don't know if you know Mark Novak or not, but I have had conversations with him about the service.
    All the best,
    David Hawthorne.