Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1997

Wendy Terry, high school dropout, graduates from Harvard at 50

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 pain.”

“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 the heck.”

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 God.”

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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