in progress edited by Daniel
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
Reprinted with permission from Learning Curves
Wendy Terry stood up suddenly and stepped away from the boardroom
table. She talked excitedly as she spun around. The 52-year-old then hiked up
her light blue buttoned-down dress ˆ and proudly showed off the tattoo on her
butt. The letters BA, written in elegant font, could clearly be seen through her
panty hose. Terry, one of the founding members of CESAR, branded herself when
she received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at York University. It took her
17 years to get that degree.
The tattoo symbolizes Terry’s commitment to adult education and
her devotion to learning in spite of countless hurdles. When she was 17, Terry
dropped out of Jarvis Collegiate after Grade 10 because of family problems and
an undiscovered learning disability. Today, she is a Harvard graduate and an
advocate of adult learning. Terry said her renewed belief in herself as a
learner began at Ryerson. As she strolled comfortably through the campus, she
had stories for every building she pointed to. In her early 20s, she went to
night school to finish her high school education. In 1974, she enrolled at
Ryerson to get a certificate in business.
“Being at Ryerson was petrifying,” said Terry. “I remember
sitting in the Business Building before I wrote my first test. I was doing
visualizing exercises to calm myself down,” said Terry, leaning back in a
chair in the CESAR office.
Terry said her renewed belief in herself as a learner began at
Ryerson and with an inspiring professor.
“I wanted to know everything,” she said. “Good teachers are
the ones who instill in you a desire to learn. I just kept going after that.”
After graduating in 1976, Terry worked for the Continuing Education
division at Ryerson. She eventually went on to establish and work for CESAR as
the executive director from 1979 to 1981. “It was most chaotic. We were sort
of flying by the seat of our pants,” said Terry with a laugh, the glasses on
her head bouncing.
Terry ran the new student association, which addressed issues such
as access to degree programs and student allowances, out of a cubbyhole in Oakum
House. “We felt that we were
students here and there were things we were interested in,” said Terry. “It
was a time when people were taking adult education more seriously.”
A few years after graduating from Ryerson, Terry started night
courses at York University. Her first days at York were as frightening as her
first days at Ryerson. Terry remembers locking herself in a stall in a campus
washroom and crying. “Every time I pass that washroom, I remember how unsure I
was of being able to learn,” said Terry. “I thought to myself that people
are crazy to do this. I’m never going to finish this.”
The single-mom quit university for about five years mid-way because
her son, who was in Grade 2, was having problems in school. He was diagnosed
with a form of dyslexia. Terry had found out four years earlier that she was
dyslexic as well. Her writing was full of transpositions, misspelled and missing
words. Terry got by with the help of the spellchecker on her computer and a
specially developed system for organizing her thoughts. She held up a sheet of
paper, showing an example of her system; it had notes scribbled on it in the
structure of a tree.
Terry graduated from York in 1995 and didn’t know how to express
her pride, excitement and relief. “I just felt educated, like stamped
finally,” Terry said, pounding her fist on the table.
“I was driving along Queen Street. There was a parking spot in
front of Way Cool Tattoo and I thought it was a sign from God,” explained
Terry. “I thought, ‘What the heck?’ and endured the half hour of tattoo
“The guys there were saying things like, ‘Who is this old lady
getting a BA on her butt?’ I told them and they replied, ‘Cool.’”
Higher learning didn’t stop after York. A friend suggested she
apply to the graduate program at Harvard University and Terry thought, “What
She vividly remembers receiving her reply in the mail. “The
envelope was ripped and when I took it out of the mail box, the contents went
crashing to the ground. I was saying welcome to Harvard and I said, “Oh, my
Terry took out a mortgage on her mother’s home to pay for the
$20,000 tuition fees and moved herself and her son to Massachusetts. After one
year, Terry graduated from Harvard in 1997 at the age of 50, with a Masters
degree in Education, majoring in international education. Twice she thought she
would fail courses. At one point, she was weighed down by 10 papers to write,
five of which were due in April. “I
felt like I was just swimming up from under the water,” said Terry. She handed
in the last one three days before graduation.
While going to school, Terry was also building up an impressive
resume. She served on the National Council for Welfare and was a member of the
executive committee of the International Federation of Workers Educational
Associations (IFWEA). From 1993 to 2000, she was IFWEA’s liaison to UNESCO
(United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations). She’s won
awards for her leadership in the field of continuing and adult education.
“People go back to school not only to learn a skill but also to
grow personally and they end up looking at their community differently,” said
Terry who is now a program coordinator at a Toronto community school for adults.
For Terry, finding the time and the money were the hardest things about going
back to school. Thinking back to her school days and what they meant to her
moved Terry to tears. She said she could not separate school from the other
areas of her life. “I think when you go to school as a part-time student, as
an adult, every course is ingrained in your life,” said Terry, a few tears
running down her cheeks. “It is embedded with your life events, with your
divorce, with your kid’s school problems, with work deadlines.”
Written by Melissa Leung
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