First in the family

By Ruth Wagstaff

As I paid the deposit for my youngest son’s grade 12 formal dinner last week, it dawned on me that in seven months time my youngest starts university.  This has personal significance for me, because my nuclear family (ex-husband, our children, and I) are the first complete nuclear on either side to have attended university.  And yes…not only was I the first to go to grade 12 and go to uni, but I am the first to have completed graduate diplomas, and to have undertaken a PhD.  I have never spoken to my sisters or father about the historical nature of my education in the family, and am not sure that it is appropriate.

I have no doubt that my sisters and father (there are no brothers, and my mother died when I was in my mid-20s) are happy that I have found my niche in the world.  Each of us have carved our own special place in the world, and we enjoy entering each other’s world from time to time.  We are not a close family, but we stay in contact.  We connect where share common views, but differences are rarely discussed.  One of those differences is our level of education, and attitudes toward education.

I have wanted to attend university since I was 10 years old.  Rather than doing traditional girl subjects: typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and home economics, I  took academic subjects that would open up almost every university course available: the high level maths, science, and music.    However, rather than go to university I did my nursing training at the local hospital (I was one of the last hospital trained registered nurses).  I began university when I was 27 years old.  This decision was no surprise to my sisters as they considered me to be the family brains and different from them.

Going to university changed the dynamics between my sisters and me in subtle ways. It drew us in closer because I became comfortable with myself.  I found the university experience intoxicating and liberating.  It is also kept us apart because the world of university was very different from what their worlds.  They could never understand the highs and lows of higher education.  They could never understand the concept of 15 weeks intense focus and long holidays. They certainly were aware of,  but were unable to appreciate, the intensity of psychology honours year.  And I am of the opinion that it is unreasonable to expect them to understand the emotional and academic journey of a PhD.

One of my sisters was of the opinion that I was a miss-know-it-all.  That was, and is, far from the truth.  University has shown me how much I do not know, how many unanswered questions there are.  I learnt to deal with the miss-know-it-all comments.  I know that she still feels intimidated by the educational journey my children and I have taken, because she justifies her children’s and own choices with, “Whatever makes you happy”.   I agree with her, and move the conversation to another topic.   When it comes down to it, keeping doors open is more important than continuing a conversation that I know will lead to misunderstanding.  It is okay to agree to not agree.