A few years ago, on a reunion visit to my hometown of Cottonwood, Minnesota, I was surprised to find the old K-12 school had been demolished. Standing next to my former high school pal, we surveyed the empty lot in total astonishment.
“Wow, it’s hard to believe this space was big enough to hold us all,” I said.
“You couldn’t graze six sheep on this land,” he replied.
In 1989, the year I graduated from high school, the population of Cottonwood was 901. My class was made up of approximately 29 students. This group was further divided into two sections: those who played in the band (and whose parents could afford to fund their instruments), and those who did not. I was in the second group, which ended up totaling about 14 students. My classmates and I grew up surrounded by a blue water tower, a green lake, endless fields of corn and beans, and a lot of dairy cows. The people were industrious, hardworking, and conscientious. Most of us began working in the fields (spraying beans, picking rock, detasseling corn) around the age of 12, if not earlier. My step-father changed tractor tires for a living. My mother’s time was spent raising children and running her own cleaning service. In high school, I held 3 jobs (waitress, dishwasher and store clerk) so I could afford important things ... like a beat-up Chevy Impala, car insurance, Nike sneakers and Levi jeans.
Although I was a B honor roll student, math was always a challenge for me, and college testing proved it. When my high school principal and I met to go over my ACT scores, he bluntly announced, “You’re not smart enough to go to college ... you should really consider a vocational-technical school.”
And I believed him.
I started exploring the prospect of attending “travel school.” I toured a school located in Minneapolis and came home with shiny brochures and a stack of financial aid paperwork. When mentioning the idea to a friend’s father, he told me that a flight attendant was just a “glamorized waitress.” I didn’t want to be a glamorized waitress, but I was uncertain what to do with my 18-year-old life.
There was one stoplight in town, and a two-lane highway that could take you anywhere you wanted to go -- if you knew the way. For me, it was hard to see past the next town over.
And then the Army recruiter found me, or maybe I found him.
Somehow I ended up in the next town over, sitting in his beige and blue office, reviewing more test scores.
“You scored very high on our testing -- so high that we’d like to give you a job in Military Intelligence.”
“What would I be doing? Like FBI stuff?” I asked.
“Well, I can’t really go into much detail on it; it’s top secret with specialized clearance” he replied.
And I signed the papers.
When I came home to tell my family about my future career plans, the first thing my mother said (half jokingly), “Thank goodness I don’t have to fill out all that financial aid paperwork for travel school.”
It was a done deal.
Soon, I would find myself in combat boots and camouflage, learning the parts of an M16 and memorizing marching cadences. I missed the gravel back roads, my Levi’s, the faces and the fields. Up until this point, everything I had ever known was located in the southwest corner of the state of Minnesota.
Leaving taught me how to be brave.
The best thing about my job as a Counterintelligence Assistant was working with the “agents” in the CI Platoon. People say that you can never have too many mothers or fathers, and I’m grateful for those who have guided me along.
“You should take a night class,” urged Sergeant Scott, laying a thin course catalog on my desk.
“Maybe,” I replied, flipping past the math listings to scan the offerings under English.
“Come on, look at Kozinski ... he’s taking classes. What does he have that you don’t?” he asked.
He had a good point.
The community college’s satellite campus consisted of a series of tin-sided trailers located on the Army base. The first college class I took was English Composition. I was so nervous, certain that someone would stand up and call out, “Hey you! The girl in the back row with the terrible math skills ... you’re not supposed to be in COLLEGE” (even if the college campus was a bunch of tin-sided trailers). I was terrified to speak up in class, and worried that my writing would fail in comparison to the others.
And then the unexpected happened ... one of those moments that forever alters the course of your life: When going over our first assignment, the professor of the class handed out copies of my paper (my name removed) as an example of “excellent” writing. As he stood pointing out what he liked about the writing to the others in the room, I couldn’t look up from the desk, the words, my name blacked out with magic marker. It was the affirmation I needed.
In the Army, I kept taking night classes. I imagined that college was a big belt, and every class was one more hole I could hammer through the leather. Little by little, success by success, I became a college student. I transferred from the tin-sided satellite campus. I mirrored the good students. I emulated my professors. I learned how to ask smart questions. I learned how to articulate my own answers. I realized that professors really want you to succeed.
Eventually, I would explore classes in almost every subject, including math. I learned to draw on the expertise of math tutors and teaching assistants, and that I could endure anything (yes, even physics) for a semester. Making it through Army basic training taught me that difficult times are easier when there is an end in sight.
The Army would lead me from Minnesota to South Carolina to Arizona to California to New York. My path through college would take me from a dream of teaching English, to becoming an occupational therapist, to helping children with special needs in the city of Buffalo, to my current career as an academic librarian at Hamilton College. Back in 1989, I had no idea that places like Hamilton existed, let alone that someday I would have the privilege of being a member of such an incredible community.
It is not by stroke of luck that you are here. Being at Hamilton is testament to your intelligence, perseverance and commitment. Be brave. Listen carefully. Ask questions. Look for opportunities. Talk to your professors. Seek help when you need it. Above all else, remember these words: You’re smart enough to go to College. Feel it in your gut, show it in your walk, let it shine in your generous spirit.