Interviewee: Sharon Farrell
Interviewer: Sarah Ainsworth
Date: March 29, 2004
A: This is Sarah Ainsworth interviewing Sharon Farrell on Monday, March 29, 2004, in
the oral history office about her role as a non-traditional student. First off, can you
tell me when and where you were born?
F: I was born in 1950 in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
A: What about your early schooling? Since we're going to be talking about the rest of
it, tell me a little bit about that.
F: When I was five, my mother moved my brother and I to Boston. She was working at
Mass. General Hospital as a nurse's aid. I went to St. Joseph's School in the West
End of Boston for grades one and two. After grade two, the city tore that section of
the town down to make way for apartments for doctors from Mass. General, so the
West End was a tenement neighborhood, much like the North End. So that part of
history sort of disappeared in 1958. It was a great place to live; I remember it.
A: Was that a Catholic school?
F: It was a Catholic school, right, St. Joseph's. I think it was on McClain Street, but I'm
not 100 percent sure. We lived on McClain Street across from the school, so yeah,
[I guess it was], and I went there for grades one and two. When we had to move, my
mom moved to Dorchester, Mass., which was part of the city but not in the city
proper, and I went to another Catholic school, St. Kevin's. I was there until I
graduated from eighth grade. After St. Kevin's I went to Monsignor Ryan Memorial
High School for Girls taught by the Sisters of Charity for high school, and I
graduated in 1968.
A: Can you tell me a little bit about your mom and what she did for a living and what
kind of education she received?
F: My mom had a high school education. She had me when she was eighteen, so she
stayed home and kept house for her father and three brothers because her mother
had died when she was only eleven. It was just me, my mom, my grandfather, and
three uncles. My uncles were only ten years older than I was. She was going to have
my brother in 1955, so she decided to move to Boston because her sister had
moved up there and started a family, so we moved in with them for about six months
in 1955. Then my mom got her own apartment on McClain Street in Boston, [and]
she was a nurse's aid. She worked at Mass. General till I was twelve, so that would
be 1962, and she had my brother Joe. She quit work then and stayed home. She
went back to school for her bachelor's degree in 1970, so my mom's a non-
traditional student, to say the least. So she got her degree at UMass, Boston,
probably, I think, 1974.
A: So she was in her forties when she went back to get a degree.
F: Yep, she was thirty-nine when she went back.
A: Do you know why she decided to go back?
F: Yes, because I was a hippie and giving my mother all sorts of problems, and she
decided if I could go to school, she could too. Don't ask me to explain that thinking,
but she went back. I dropped out of school, and my mom went back to school, so it
was kind of an odd thing. After she got her degree-she graduated summa [cum
laude] from UMass in 1974-then she went to Simmons [College] and got her MSW
[Masters in Social Work] in 1977. So she's had an interesting career. Even though
she started late, she ended up with a twenty-five year career, which is what I'm
hoping for too. She just quit work last year, in fact she's down here with me now and
it looks like she'll be in Florida with me indefinitely.
A: What type of work was it that she did after she got her degree?
F: [She was a] social worker. She worked in a couple neighborhood agencies, and
then she went to Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, and she was, I
believe, chief social worker. The criminally insane of Massachusetts are sent to
Bridgewater, so that's where she spent the last part of her career. So [that was]
A: Were you and your mom ever at school at the same time, or did your mom go back
right after you quit?
F: No, we weren't at school at the same time. I went to Boston College right after high
school, and that's basically where I dropped out of. I went two years, then I went
back my third year, but I just stopped going to class and took withdraw and failings.
So I had never looked at my transcript until I applied for grad school and [I] realized
how bad it was.
A: What influenced you to go to Boston College after you graduated?
F: They gave me a full scholarship, I was Catholic and the nuns approved of it, [and]
my mom was thrilled. So basically I went there because it seemed like the right
thing for an Irish-Catholic to do.
A: What did you begin studying?
F: [I began studying] history, but in 1968 when I went to Boston College, women were
not allowed in the school of liberal arts. You could either go to the school of
education or nursing, and the only way I could get to take history classes that were
interesting was to say I was going to teach high school, and then I was allowed to
take history classes in the school of liberal arts, it was actually arts and sciences
they called it. That was the only way for me to get to take history classes I liked was
to say I was going to be a secondary ed teacher, which of course I really didn't want
to be. I never wanted to teach high school, but it was our way of working the system.
So yeah, I left in 1971, and I still don't believe they had admitted women to arts and
sciences, though I'm not sure at what point they did. But I know when I went it was
either nursing or education; no liberal arts. It's a Jesuit school, so we just took it for
granted in those days.
A: Did you have an idea of what you wanted to be?
F: I wanted to teach college history. So eventually, that's where I'm at now, trying to
teach college history. So I've done a great big circle in my life.
A: So tell me a little bit about Boston College and why you didn't finish the first time.
F: When I went to Boston College, I was very sheltered. [I was a] typical product of
Boston's Catholic schools. I started getting interested in politics and alternative
lifestyles, I'll put this delicately, and getting involved in the whole counter-culture of
the 1960s and things like that. So I was really much more interested in politics, [the]
anti-war movement, Socialism, and things like that than I was in my schoolwork.
That's really why I dropped out, just because I was so busy going from
demonstration to demonstration. I didn't have time for class. I went back for the first
semester of my junior year, then I just dropped out and got a job, and by 1972 I was
A: What job did you get after you dropped out?
F: I had a variety of jobs. I worked for someone who made independent movies. He
would get brilliant ideas and we would write them down and type them for him. That
was one of my odd jobs. I worked as a waitress in Brigham's. I worked as a
waitress in Liggitz. I worked at Mass. General for a short time on dispatch. We
would carry messages and transfer patients throughout the hospital. I worked doing
public opinion polls. [I] just [did] a lot of really weird little jobs. There was really no
rhyme or reason to my life at that point.
A: When you got married, were you still on the same path? Did you have any intentions
of going back to school eventually?
F: When I got married, I've never really changed. My politics remained pretty much the
same. I still participate in demonstrations and things like that when the big ones
come up. So my politics have always stayed radical, but I did get married. I was
madly in love, so I got married in 1972. I was twenty-two years old when I got
married, and I stayed home for many years. I stayed home as a wife. Then I had my
first baby in 1975, and when I had her, I started thinking, wow, if anything happens to
my husband, I won't be able to support her. It's [a] totally from the gut reaction to
having a baby and that sense of responsibility. So I went back to school and I got
my bachelors in 1977. I graduated in May of 1977 with my BS in social work
because I decided not to go back for history and I didn't want to teach grammar
school. I went for social work because I figured if anything happened to my husband,
I could get a job working in the welfare system or something. I went for a trade
because I had this baby and I felt responsible. So I graduated in May 1977.
A: Was this from Boston College?
F: No, it was from Suffolk University, it's a small liberal arts college on Beacon Hill. [It's
a] very nice school. It's more famous for its law school. My husband actually taught
law at the school, so I went because I got in for free tuition. So there was [a]
practical reason for going to Suffolk. Then I had my second child in November 1977,
so he was with me when I graduated, sort of.
A: Could you tell me maybe if you had any sort of culture shocks re-entering the
university system after having a child and being married and being a few years
removed from that?
F: In 1977 it wasn't that bad because I wasn't that far out of it. I just really had a very no-
nonsense attitude; I was just going to take the classes I had to take, get the degree,
and be finished and finish off my family and go on with my life. To me it was just like
business, it was my job. I just went to school, took the class, [and] did the paper. I
think also, because it was a trade, my whole mind set was different; I wasn't
involved emotionally with it at all. It was just not enjoyable. And really, because I had
a baby at home, I just went for classes; I didn't get involved in anything at school. I
just did the class and went back home, so there was no time for any kind of
emotional response to anything. It was just cut and dried.
A: What about your first time at Boston College? What kind of involvement did you
have? Were you very involved?
F: When I went to Boston College, coming out of a Catholic high school where
everything is very regimented, even though Boston College certainly wasn't like
Boston University, there was still a lot of freedom. I found that exhilarating. For
instance, when I was a senior in high school, the book Lord of the Flies was very
popular. We actually had to get permission from the principal to read that book and
take it out of our library. So coming from that kind of atmosphere where even
reading a novel is so regimented, I found college just absolutely thrilling, which is
probably why I went so crazy and just got involved with all this crazy politics and stuff.
It was a whole new world opening up for me. I mean in those days, we couldn't even
go to certain movies. Before I'd go to a movie, my mom would check and make
sure it was okay with the church that I go. I really led a sheltered life until I went to
college, and even that was kind of sheltered because it was a Catholic college; it
was a small college. I sort of found my life experience on my own.
A: At Boston College did you live on campus?
F: No, I lived at home for my first year, and my second year I lived with a bunch of
friends on Commath in the Austin section of Boston. It was basically a big old
A: How did that effect having the new freedom of college and yet still living with your
F: My mom was a Democrat, but very Republican in her thinking. We were having a lot
of problems because I told her I wasn't going to go to church anymore. In fact, I had
decided not to go to church when I was sixteen, so she had a nervous breakdown
because she was sure she was going to go to hell because of what I decided to do.
So we weren't getting along. Now we get along fine because mom got radicalized
when she went to college, it's a trip, but in those days she was very rigid and very
conservative. So when I went to college and started doing all these rebellious
things, she went slightly crazy. Also, I got arrested a couple times in demonstrations
[and] it was very hard for my mother at that point. I'm sure she must have been
embarrassed. Then my family was so conservative and so rigid that it was very
embarrassing for her to have a daughter like me. I was the antithesis of everything
she was supposed to have, so those were rough years.
A: Tell me a little bit more about when you said your mom went to college and she got
radicalized. How did that happen?
F: Well she went to UMass in 1970 and she took an English class, [and it was] the
same thing that happened to me going to college, where you had new ideas
available and all kinds of academic subjects opened for us. It was the same for her.
All of a sudden she just started thinking outside of the box, and basically, I converted
her from being very pro-Vietnam War to being very against, so that at one point
when I got arrested, my mom yelled at the cop who called her up to tell her I had
been arrested, demanding to know if I was alright and to make sure they hadn't
beaten me or anything. So she came a long, long way in a year. It was just a great
A: You've protested against the Vietnam War, and what other causes did you protest?
F: I protested the first time when I was fifteen-I marched in the St. Patrick's Day
Parade in Boston-[but] I can't remember the group; it was something like Young
Catholics Against Segregation or something like that. It was a Catholic sponsored
Civil Rights thing. So that was my first, and I was involved in little things like that, but
I was only fifteen so there was a limit to what my mom would allow. She wasn't really
very happy about me marching in South Boston either just because she was afraid
for me because Southy is, and still remains, a kind of tough neighborhood.
A: Let's go back a little bit to your next time at college. I wanted to know about your
experiences fitting in with younger students there, which obviously you were there
just streamlined-get a degree-but what about in your classes?
F: Well, it was a lot easier for me because it was just all business, so I actually did my
schoolwork and had my papers done. I enjoyed it more because I was a little older,
[and] for some reason things came easier to me. I actually got a B in biology, which
is something I never thought I'd do; science was always my weakness. But going
back, I think I took that my last year, so it must have been 1976/1977 year, and it
came to me. I just think that's one of the benefits of being older. It was not the great
mystery that it might have been seven or eight years before. So I enjoyed that. I
didn't get into any kind of social life; I was older than the other students, I had a
baby, so I really had nothing in common with my classmates. They would get angry
at the professor for giving them a low grade, and I was doing okay, so I wouldn't
participate in these little ruckuses. I didn't have any social life at school.
A: What about your actual experience getting admitted to the college? How was the
process of admissions and getting your transcript evaluated?
F: Well, that was a little embarrassing because my husband was teaching at the law
school, so I had to go and see the director of admissions for an interview and bring
my transcripts from Boston College. He was very nice to me, but it was pretty clear
that something happened, but they accepted me. Of course there were things I had
to make up, but other than just the embarrassment [of] saying, well yes, my last
semester at Boston College was all W/F's. But it passed and I got in, and that was
fine. I didn't have to take any SATs because I had taken them the first time, so they
admitted me, probably reluctantly, but they decided to give me a second chance, so
it was great.
A: You said earlier that when you studied for different subjects the second time you
went to college, that it wasn't a great mystery [and] some things just came to you.
How else had you changed?
F: Well, I changed in that I was married and had a child, so I was not really involved in
my great causes and things like that. I had a very sedate life at that point. My
daughter was born in February, and I was back in school in September, so she was
very young. I really liked being a mother, I loved staying at home, so going to school
was just something I was doing as a necessary thing. Really the focus of my
attention was on my daughter. It was kind of, not meaningless, but I wasn't really
emotionally involved in it. It was just get through it and do it and get done so that I
could focus on finishing off my family, which is really what I wanted to do.
A: How did you line up childcare and deal with that aspect?
F: That was really hard because my mom was back in school, so she was unavailable.
My husband's mother was a lawyer, and she and my father-in-law had a law office
on Beacon Hill, so I would take my daughter to the office. What they did is, they had
an empty office on the second floor of the office suite, and they turned it into a
nursery. So I would bring my daughter there while I was at school [and] my mother-
in-law would baby-sit for her. So that's how we did it. I don't even know if there were
any childcare options available to us. I don't think that there were any childcare
options at the university. So it was definitely that, and if she couldn't do it, then I had
to hire a babysitter. You did what you could; no daycare. So my mother-in-law was
very helpful that way.
A: So you were a full-time student and a full-time mom and what other roles did you
have at this point?
F: I was a wife too, and my husband was a professor at the college at the law school,
so that involves going to these dinners and all that kind of political stuff. He was also
involved, his father and he, with city politics, so I actually had a social life in those
days. We'd go to fundraisers and things like that.
A: Did you meet any other non-traditional students in your time there?
F: No, [I did not meet any other non-traditional students].
A: So you were in the college among a sea of people who were eighteen to twenty-
F: Yes. Suffolk has always had a night school, so I am sure that there were older
students there at the time, I just didn't encounter them because I wasn't working
[and] I could take classes in the daytime. But Suffolk has always made a provision
for their undergrads who are non-traditional students, [and] I thought that was great,
but for me, I was taking class in the daytime with the seventeen and eighteen year
olds. It was [a] very weird kind of thing. I didn't feel like I was a part of anything; I was
just there. I was the alien in that group. I wasn't as old then as I am now, so I wasn't
as alien, I didn't feel as alien as I do sometimes now.
A: Do you think your relationships in class with your other students and teachers was
affected by your age being a little bit older than they were?
F: You mean back when I was at Suffolk?
A: Yes, at Suffolk.
F: Well I didn't really have any relationship with undergrads. I didn't have any
relationship with other students. I just was in and out. With teachers, I wasn't so old
that they were younger than I was, which was really nice, because now some of my
teachers are younger than I am, so it's really weird. It was okay. Personally I felt that
they liked non-traditional students because we tended to be, as I'm told, more
serious, and [we] give them less aggravation than younger students do, or so I've
been told. I don't know whether that's true or not.
A: Are there any ways that your age and experience in life at your time at Suffolk made
it harder to be a student?
F: [It was] harder to be a student because I was beset by practical problems like
childcare. If my daughter was cranky, I couldn't give myself 100 percent to the paper
I was working on. My ex-husband was a very traditional kind of 1950s and 1960s
guy, and he was no help at all taking care of her. He just wasn't involved, so it's not
like I could give her to him at night and say, I have a paper, could you watch the
baby. That made my life much more difficult. It was really, really hard having a baby
and trying to keep [up], but I didn't pass papers in late or anything. But that was the
biggest thing, and no eighteen-year-old, unless they have a baby, is going to
understand that I'm typing a paper with a baby in my lap. I did an awful lot of work
between midnight and morning because that's when she was asleep. It was tough. I
haven't thought about it in a long time, but yeah, it was really tough.
A: The timing of your decision to have a second baby, was that purposely intended so
that you would be pregnant and then [graduate]?
F: Well, yeah, because the baby was planned and I was graduating in May, so we
decided that winter to have another baby. So I graduated and I was pregnant. It was
part of my life plan to have a second one and then just bring up babies. So I had the
security of having my bachelors degree in case anything happened I could get a job.
For a long time I was a stay-at-home mom.
A: Were there any additional complications to being pregnant and being a student at
the same time?
F: Yeah. I had a miscarriage in between my babies, so I missed about two weeks of
school, so that was hard, but I made it up. Then I was pregnant when I graduated.
Gee, I don't know, he was born in November, so I must have been pregnant by
March, so [I was pregnant] only two months when I graduated. It was not really an
issue. I think if I was like six months pregnant it would have been a bigger issue, but
at that point you take everything in stride.
A: What kind of outside support did you receive during this time at Suffolk going back
F: [What do you mean by] outside support?
A: Maybe emotional support from family, or were you on your own?
F: I was on my own. My mom was back in school herself. Gosh, she was in grad
school, so she was totally insane with her life. My mother-in-law was very supportive
because she helped me with the babysitting, and also she really encouraged me to
go and was very supportive of my decision to go back, which was really a big deal
and it meant a lot to me. My ex-husband was more or less angry at me for going
back, he resented the fact that I wasn't around to take care of him. That was the
hard part too, because basically if I ran into a problem of babysitting it was like, well
you decided to go back to school, so you figure it out. He was kind of punishing me
for doing that. Actually when I went back to school later in my life, the same mind set
predominated, so he didn't change much over the years.
A: Tell me what happened after you received your degree. You decided to stay at
F: Yeah, [I wanted to stay at home].
A: Then what?
F: I had my son in 1977, and we were living in Boston at the time and basically that's
what I did: I was a stay at home mom [and] I didn't work outside the home. My
husband worked, so we had a very traditional set up. I'm really quite thrilled that that
option was open to me because I'm not certain that it's open to a lot of women
anymore. I was able to stay home and be with the babies. I loved being a mother, it
was just super, so it was really great for me. And my ex-husband required a lot of
care, so it was a full-time job. I'm not certain whether he required more care than the
babies or not, but it's possible. But I stayed home until 1984. He decided to quit
teaching and open a private practice, so when he did that I was his secretary when
he opened up his own legal practice. But I worked at home, so that was kind of
agreeable too. He had an office in the home, and that's how he started.
A: What made you decide to stop being his secretary eventually?
F: I hated working with him-we didn't work well together at all. He was just very
exacting and we would fight a lot. I only worked for him for two years and he fired
me. He went into a partnership with another attorney and I would work days, and the
other attorney's wife would work in the afternoon. As soon as they could afford it
they fired us to hire a real secretary. It's always a problem when someone is being
mean to you at the office and then when they come home and they want to know
what's for dinner. It's like, if I had a particularly bad day, I would say poison. I would
not feel like making dinner for this guy who gave me a hard time all morning. We did
not work well together at all. So as soon as the business took off, we parted
business ways for about three or four years. I ended up going back to work for him
in 1989 in the partnership as a paralegal, and that was a lot better because I
worked on my own. I took these workshops that they offered for paralegals and
things like that and just learned how to do it. It just made a big difference. I was not a
good secretary, but I was a great paralegal. I had no training to be a secretary, so
why on Earth he thought I could be a legal secretary I do not know, but it was very
stressful. I worked as a paralegal until 2000, so eleven years.
A: Did you enjoy your work as a paralegal?
F: Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't. I liked the investigative part of it. I liked
putting a case together. I did a lot of accident cases and malpractice, so I enjoyed
sending for the records and going over them [and] making the trial notebook. That
was exciting because it's kind of interesting because it's like history, you do a lot of
research, putting puzzle pieces together, why this accident created this situation
and things like that. So that part of it I really liked, [but] the day to day details are not
that exciting. When my children grew up and I started thinking about the next part of
my life, I knew I didn't want anything to do with the law just because I tend to be an
idealistic person, and I found working as a paralegal to be very disillusioning, to say
the least, and I just didn't want anything to do with the law. My ex-husband really
wanted me to go to law school and I feel certain I could have done it, but I didn't
want to. I was casting about for something to do, and I was going to go get my MSW
because I had the bachelors in social work and I thought, well that's what I should
do. My son was in school at the time and he called me up for help on a history
paper, and I discussed it with him. He said, you know Ma, forget about social work,
you should do what you love, do history. It was like a revelation: Do what I love?
What a novel idea! So that's when I decided to go apply for a master's in history,
and that was sort of the beginning of this whole process that has taken me to
A: How old was your son at this time?
F: This would have been 1997, so he would have been nineteen or twenty.
A: So he was in college?
F: Yeah. I always give him the credit [for getting me started on this]. As I look back, I
sort of feel like I lost myself somewhere along the line, and that was sort of the
beginning of finding myself again; deciding to go back and study what I enjoy and
love. It was a great moment, so he gets the kudos for that. Your kids tend to know
you very well-they spend eighteen to twenty years with you-so they do know you
A: I think that's kind of interesting that your time in college sort of sparked your mom
going to school, and now your son did that for you.
F: Yeah, I never connected that. That's interesting.
A: Was there a time that you volunteered? Was that before or after you went back to
college to get a MS in history?
F: [That was] before. Once I went to grad school, I didn't have time. I did a lot of
volunteer work. I took training programs at Fort Devens, which was in Air Mass,
Massachusetts. They had a spousal abuse hotline, but honestly in the year that I was
there I got only one call because the Army had a very tricky thing. It was kind of good
for women because if their spouse abused them they could have them removed
from quarters, but after thirty days, if he wasn't back in quarters, they had to leave.
So Army women were kind of in a catch-22: it was great on one hand, but if they
kept him out of quarters then they would lose them. So they just tended not to
complain. I took training with LUK center in Fitchburg, Mass., and they just
basically taught us crisis intervention. So I got a certificate in that and went to Fort
Devens for a year. They had childcare on base, so that made it kind of nice, but
really there was nothing to do, so I quit. I'm not exactly sure of my dates, but
probably in 1996, I did another training for National Rape and Assault in Nashua,
New Hampshire, and I started working [there]. I worked for them for about three
years. We would do twelve hour stints of duty, so you'd work either eight to eight in
the daytime or eight to eight at night. If someone was taken in the hospital, usually
the hospital would call us and we'd be there if someone had been raped or beaten
up. We'd go and help them through the process of reporting it to the police. If they
wanted us to stay during the exam we would. So once you went out at night you did
not know when you were coming back. It could be like three hours because you just
would stay with them as long as they wanted you to. We'd go to court with them and
basically just support them through the legal process. I did that for about three or
four years; I enjoyed that too, that's good work.
A: That's interesting combining your social work expertise and legal knowledge. I
wanted to know, I meant to ask you earlier, if your mom's career in social work, her
decision to get a degree in that, if that affected your decision to choose social work
to be the job that would eventually support you if you needed to?
F: I don't think at that time [it was because of my mom]. I was really involved with my
own family, and my mother and I weren't that close at that time, so no, it didn't early
on. It was basically casting about for something I could do easily and get out of
school fast. I didn't want to go for education because I'd have to take education
classes and it would add to my time. I actually got [my degree] in crime and
delinquency as my minor because I felt that I could work for state welfare, I could get
a job as a probation officer, [or] I could work in the criminal justice system. I felt it just
opened all kinds of things, [and] it was also the quickest course of action to get me
in and out fast. There was really no romance [or] anything involved with it, I just made
a very practical decision at that point. I wouldn't have to repeat that much [and] a lot
of my credits from BC would count, so there was no what I wanted, what I desired to
do, [or] what I was excited about [involved]. [There was] nothing like that; [it was] just
in and out.
[end side Al]
A: How long did it take to get your degree at Suffolk?
F: I got through in two years; fall of 1975 I went back, and [I] graduated in 1977. I just
went through; there was no slacking, no nothing, so I was done in two years.
A: About how many courses do you think you would take in a semester at average?
F: I think I was taking four, maybe five; I went full-time. The second year I had to do an
internship, so that was kind of gruesome too because that just added, I forget how
many hours, [to my load]. But I had to do an internship, and I did that over in South
Boston in a teen outreach place. It was tough, it was really, really tough. I do not
know how I did it, I can't figure that one out, but it must just be that I was younger
[and] having energy. It's tiring me out just thinking about it now.
A: Tell me a little bit about deciding to get your master's degree. How did that go,
where did you decide to go, and what course of action did you take? Your kids were
in college at this point?
F: Yes, my son was in college. My daughter basically took her college fund to
California and decided to be an actress after high school, so I'm not sure where she
was. She might have been in California this year, probably explaining my empty
nest, because she was getting work as an extra in movie sets out there. She was
out there for about a year I think, and I was just sort of thinking, I don't want to keep
at this and looking about for what to do with the rest of my life. Getting the master's
degree in social work seemed like a natural extension of working at the rape and
assault center because that's sort of social work. I think that was sort of pushing me
in that direction. Of course by that time my mother had her MSW, this would be
1996 or 1997, so my mom has an MSW, my brother Joe has an MSW, and my
brother Richard was in school to get his, and he also went back to school in his
forties. So we are the late blooming family, except for my brother Joe and my
brother Arthur. Two of my brothers went the regular route, but my brother Tracy and I
basically were late bloomers. So after my son said that to me, I was living in New
Hampshire, so I decided to go for an interview and talk to the graduate student
advisor at the University of New Hampshire, and she told me that I should take a
class through the extension. She said that I should do that in the fall, do the
application, and so when they were considering my application in the spring,
someone in the department would have had me for class and would know me. You
could do three classes through the extension and have them count towards your
master's, so it wasn't wasting time or anything. I went with my daughter, so she was
obviously there in the summer, so she was back from California, we went to
Durham, [and] talked to Lucy Salyer in the history department up there. She told me
I should take a class with Janet Polasky because it was women's history and she
thought I'd be interested in it.
So I picked up the syllabus in Janet Polasky's office and went over to the bookstore
with my daughter to buy the books. I started flipping through the pages of the
syllabus and I looked at the books and basically I just had a meltdown and I just said
to my daughter, I can't do this, there's no way I can read all these books, and I ran
away. I just said, forget about it, I can't do it, and I left. I drove home and I said,
there's no way I can read all those books, it's just not possible. Basically it scared
me to death looking at the syllabus. I said, there's no way anybody can do this, it's
impossible. Grad school is so different than undergrad, and of course that would be
my last experience. I just was shell shocked that day. I just went home and then I
started thinking about it. I said, well, I really want to, but clearly I can't take this class,
so I'll do something simpler and more confined and less novels. So the only class I
felt was sort of in the box enough for me to feel comfortable was German history. I
really was not that interested in German history, but at least it's from such-n-such a
date to such-n-such a date, and it's more traditional.
So I signed up for the German history class and I took that that fall and I did well. It
was horrible because I didn't know how to write, I didn't know what he wanted from
me, but he was very patient and so finally I figured out how to write a review for him
and did okay. Then for the spring, I signed up through the extension for Gender and
Southern History, and I can't remember the other class, but I really loved the Gender
and Southern History, and that sort of got me going. I was accepted the next year for
the program, so that was the beginning.
A: How did your initial class match up to your past experience, which would have been
maybe seventeen or eighteen years earlier?
F: [It was] longer [than that]. The last time I would have taken a history class would have
been the fall 1970, because it's the same year I met my husband. So this was
1996/1997, [and] it was just absolutely shocking. I think that for myself I made a
good decision to go with the German history just because it was a little more
traditional. I think if I had gone into a Gender and Southern History class that
semester, I would have been totally like, what are you talking about? The way history
was taught in 1970 and the way it's taught now is just worlds and worlds apart. It
was all political history when I was in school last.
A: What other differences are there in the way history's being taught from 1970 to the
F: Well, history is much more nuanced. We, in say 1968-1970, we had a master
narrative of history: these are the facts, you just know how it all goes and you'll be
fine. We didn't have women's history, African-American history, [and] American
Indians were a footnote. Women historians look back and say it was "white man's
history," and that's exactly what it was. So taking the German history wasn't so very
different. This professor didn't do very much about German women, though he
encouraged me to do a paper about daycare in East Germany after the war. So I
did that, but still, it wasn't very different. It wasn't cultural and social history: studying
prostitution, studying women's work, you know the very fact that women would leave
home and how they first found work and developed roles for themselves. This was
all totally unknown to me when I was in school the first time. So it's much more
exciting now than it was then.
A: What about the actual process of studying and the skills that are necessary for
being back in school? How was that after your break even though you did a lot of
work in the meantime?
F: I found it absolutely traumatizing because I had worked as a paralegal for years,
and the writing style for that is you put as little as possible in writing because this
document might be used at trial so you don't want to say too much in your legal
writing. You have to always be careful what you're saying, so it was very brief, very
tightly constructed, [and had] no details. That was the kind of writing I had done for
years, so when I came back to school, writing has been just really the hardest,
hardest piece of it. It has been really, really tough. I think that has been the hardest
part of it. What we do, I think, and a lot of other students agree, we learn how to
write for each professor for each class we take. There's not a lot of leeway. We
learn what they want and we do it. It's been a trip. I really didn't learn how to write
until I came here and Dr. Sheryl Kroen, when she gave me back my paper, gave me
back a page of written suggestions. She really models writing, and that's when I
learned how to write, when I took her classes last year. She's just a tremendous,
tremendous academic. That was traumatic. It's traumatic too when you're forty-six
and forty-seven years old and feeling like you don't know anything. When I went to
my first history class and they used the word historiography, I didn't know what the
hell that meant. It was like, historiography, I must be really stupid because I don't
know what that means. And the lingo [is different]; you have to learn a whole new
language. Things that people who had gone from their undergrad to grad school
would just take for granted were just a big stumbling block for me because it was
just learning a whole new language. History itself had changed so much. It was
exciting. When I was in school in 1970, things were sort of starting to make that
change, we were starting to deal with under classes and things like that a little more,
but it was certainly nothing like it is now where everybody has a voice. It's kind of
nice. I have found it very difficult, and I found UF to be a whole world unto itself. It's
my first big school too.
A: So you got a master's degree ...
F: [Yes], in 2000.
A: From which school?
F: [I got the master's from the] University of New Hampshire.
A: What made you decide to move down here?
F: I got a divorce in 2000, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was free to do
whatever I wanted. Of course I wanted the education, but I also wanted a chance to
live in a different culture, so I applied for Florida, Arizona, and Washington state.
Clearly, I wanted to live someplace different. I was very tempted to go to Northern
Arizona because it was in Flagstaff and I'd love to live in the West; it would be nice
if I got a job at Northern Arizona some day. So for me it was a choice between
Arizona and Florida, and I decided on Florida for a lot of reasons: they offered me a
fellowship for my first year, which was very nice, it's easier to get back home from
Florida than it is from Flagstaff, Arizona, and I had a friend who was going to school
down here, so at least I knew somebody, even if it was just one person, I knew
somebody. So that's how I decided.
A: Tell me a little bit more about going and getting a master's degree. How about
family support then? You said you had family late bloomers, so what was their
reaction to your decision?
F: My mother thought it was great and was very supportive of me going back to school
because she wanted me to get out and do something anyway. She just felt I just
needed to develop my own interests at that point and not just do something
because it's the family business. My kids were both very supportive, and continue to
be, of what I do. They're great. I actually got my daughter back to school when I went
back. So here we see just a little reversal of that mother-daughter trend. She was
working in a gas station after she came back from California, and I suggested she
take a class in something she really liked. I said, just take one class and see how
you like it. So she took an English class and she got sucked in. So she ended up
getting her bachelor's degree, and now she's in the master's program and UNH.
She's an ancient historian. She's not quite as out of her depth as I was going back
in my forties, but she was in her twenties when she went for her bachelor's. She's
twenty-nine now, she's married, and she should get her master's next December.
A: Did you and your daughter attend the same school at the same time?
F: She got her bachelor's from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester, and I
worked on my master's at the Durham campus, the main campus. So we weren't in
the same class, though we did have one of the same professors. Of course now
she's taking professors I've had because now [that] she's getting her master's,
she's at the Durham campus. When she went there she talked to my old advisor, so
that was kind of nice because at least they knew her before she came. The
University of New Hampshire is just a great academic environment, especially the
history department. It was a very hard decision to leave there because they
accepted me too, and I'm never really totally 100 percent sure I did the right thing.
A: Since your time in graduate school, how has your relationship with other students
and teachers differed from your time at Boston College and then at Suffolk?
F: That's really hard because grad school is different. I have made some very good
friends here, in fact, I have a twenty-eight year old roommate this year. She's from
Japan [and] she's in the history department too. So my life has sort of broadened
and I've made some very good friends down here, and they are younger because
I'm a grad student. So naturally the friends I make in my own department are going
to be younger. [As for] professors, Louise Newman is my chair, so I know her pretty
well, and Sheryl Kroen, I just really think of her as my mentor down here. So I don't
really socialize with them, though I've had dinner and coffee with them. It's odd, you
always feel very odd. And also, because I think graduate school kind of infantilizes
people-it turns you into a baby; you're always jumping through hoops and taking
tests-so sometimes it's hard when you're fifty-three because people are treating
you like a baby and constantly testing you. It's difficult; I find it very, very hard
sometimes, and not a little discouraging.
A: So are you saying that most of the students in graduate school at this time have
enough maturity accumulated that they don't need to constantly go through the ropes
and do these things that you're motivated on your own without that?
F: I can't speak about other people. I've met some really brilliant people in this
department, but the process of getting to candidacy is in some ways demeaning to
us as people. I'm sure that in every department there are people who aren't serious
about their work and it's a mistake that they're there, I guess, but I think most of us
[care]. We give up a good portion of our life to do this, so to be treated like a baby
is kind of insulting-at least I find it so. Don't let anybody in the department hear this
interview until I'm out. (Laughing) It's just a fact of life. It's the system, the academic
system, that you're constantly tested and stuff like that. But gee, the people I know in
the history department are really serious students. Everybody is going crazy and
demented over this test, that test, and they're all serious. I mean, we're all serious
people. I don't know anybody who's having a good time and is a graduate student in
history. I mean if you can get one social night a week, you're doing a wild and crazy
week. All we do is read, and we're deadly serious, and we work. I don't know,
sometimes I think it's made unnecessarily difficult.
A: How have the students changed from your time as an undergraduate student to a
graduate student, if you've noticed? You're in a different league of students, but if
you've had any observations about the undergraduates students. Also, being a TA,
you could tell me a little about that too.
F: When I was an undergraduate the first time, it was a very unusual time. Everything
was very political, we were going to change the world, so I think that passion is
gone. Now I don't really see it as a strong [force]. History is a great place for that
kind of passion to be played out, so once in a while I have a very passionate
student, but it's a different time. It really is a different time and place. I'm not sure
that you can compare 1968-1970 to 2003-2004. It's a different world. I guess, if I
was an undergraduate now, and compare my undergrad years to yours, I would say
that I would miss the passion of those years.
A: What has it been like being in school at the same time as your children?
F: Actually that's been kind of nice because we all understand what we're all going
through. I mean they would have understood, I like to think, but it's been kind of fun
because we'll call each other up and we'll talk about what we're doing [and] we'll
talk about our papers. Like my daughter sends me her papers all the time to edit.
My son is a physicist, so we don't meet on any academic ground at all, but he'll talk
to me about his classes and stuff like that. So I have a really good relationship with
my children, I enjoy them, and I like them too, which is really nice now that they're
grown up; as people I like them. It's kind of fun because we're all students together.
We talk on the phone a lot and we complain about this and complain about that.
When my daughter is really stressed about the amount of work she has to do [or]
with the amount reading she has to do, she finds it easier to talk to me than my ex
because I know what she's going through. I understand what it's like to read every
bloody night, and he thinks of it as just being in school, so it's not [that bad]. There's
a certain bond in sharing graduate school together because we understand. Like if I
say to her, I have to do two papers by such-n-such a date and I'm just zipping
through, I don't care what they're about, I just want to get them done, she
understands. So it's been nice. As I said, my son [and I] can only discuss
generalities because he's like one of these mathematical/science geniuses, but
he's going to be a teacher too, so that's kind of interesting. At this point my
daughter's thinking about going to law school, but she's not positive. So basically
we're all sort of on the teacher track, so we talk about that and we're never going to
A: Speaking of finances, how have you been able to afford your time here? You got a
fellowship your first year.
F: And I have a TA'ship and also I have rehabilitative alimony for my marriage. I was
married for twenty-eight years, so I have that for four years. That ends next May, so I
have to be done here and ready to take adjuncts and get my dissertation written. So
I'm definitely under a time constraint [and] I don't have a minute to spare. When he
asked me how long I needed to get the Ph.D., I just said four years. I should have
said five or six because that's more realistic, but I just wanted to get the paperwork
done and get out, so I said four. So that's how I'm managing. For my dissertation I
might have to go back and stay with him and his new wife while I finish my
dissertation, so it's certainly not traditional, but we get along, so that's good.
A: What's the subject of your dissertation?
F: It's going to be gay and lesbian history in Boston during the 1970s. I've talked to my
committee about it. At first I was just going to do the 1970s after Stonewall, how the
gay community in Boston basically started building community and coming up with a
lesbian bookstore, the political changes that happened, but as Brian Ward pointed
out, I really need to do the 1960s, and maybe even the 1950s, to say how it was
before. So it's going to be a community study of Boston and the gay/lesbian
A: What about other multiple roles that you have now that you're in a different situation
in life and back in school again? What roles do you have, and how do you juggle
them and then the stress?
F: Well, the stress is huge, that's my biggest problem, but that all comes from grad
school. Occasionally something will happen with my kids that'll cause me some
distress. My mother is visiting me and she's going to stay with me until April, but she
might be moving in with me next year because my brother might not be able to take
her. Those are just sort of ordinary things that you take in stride, but really my stress
comes from grad school. My kids, other than occasional bumps in life, are sort of
set, so they don't cause me any grief. I get along with my family really well. In some
ways this is a really good part of my life because all I really am doing is I'm in school
and I'm doing what I want to do, so I guess I have to say I'm where I want to be. In
spite of all the insane parts of it I'm really, really happy, so I can't complain. There
are definitely worse things to do than being in grad school at fifty-three, so it's not
A: Your ultimate career goal is to be a teacher, but what exactly would be the most
thrilling thing for you to be able to teach, and where?
F: I think, I mean if I was going to have a dream job, I'd love to teach at University of
Massachusetts in Boston. That would be my dream job. I'd like to teach African-
American history, women's history, [or] gay/lesbian history; any of those courses
would be just super with me. I like University of Massachusetts because there's a lot
of working class people in it. I like the location; it's on the ocean, it's in my old
neighborhood, and I do love Boston, so I want to go back. One of the good things
about living away from Boston is you sort of rediscover how much you miss it and
love it. So that would be really super. I have six million research papers I'd like to do
that I never have time to do. I don't have time to do any of my own work because I'm
always sort of running to catch up with stuff I need to do for school. I'd like a chance
just to get into the archives somewhere and dig in for a couple of months and come
up with a paper. Things like that. I know I'll always be interested in discovering new
things. You have to love going through old papers and putting the detective story of
history together, otherwise you couldn't possibly do all this. I'm really looking forward
to getting done with my class work, which hopefully will be this summer. I'll take my
last class, and just moving on. My advisor talked to me about what I thought I'd be
doing, and I said, well I guess I'm going to work till I die. My mother just retired this
year, and she's seventy-two, so I guess I'm just going to go that route and have a
twenty year career. I'm just going to keep healthy and keep working.
A: Tell me, I meant to ask, when you moved down to Gainesville to go to school, what
was that like entering this new phase, working towards a Ph.D., and living in a
brand new place where you know one friend, and completely different from your
F: I packed, I had a Ryder moving van, I had my dog, and I remember pulling out from
New Hampshire and looking in the mirror at the house as it sort of faded, and I felt
really excited because it was like I was going on an adventure. The first day was
great, I stayed overnight in Delaware, and the next time I got out of the Ryder van
was in Virginia, and I got out and I felt like I was in a blast furnace, and that's when I
knew I was doing something different because the heat was unbelievable. I thought
to myself, my God, this is Virginia, wait till I get to Florida. I moved down here in
June and it was awful. I thought to myself, I'm insane, I've ruined my life by moving
here, I'm crazy, because, oh my God, I couldn't even breathe! I would go walking
[and] I would feel like I was underwater because of the humidity. Sometimes I think
I'm insane to live here, and other times [I think] well at least I've had this experience.
I've gotten acclimated and I don't miss the snow. I found you can have Christmas
without snow and it's really nice.
A: So tell me, are there any special challenges that you've faced as a non-traditional
student that we haven't already talked about that you think are important to mention?
F: There's the feeling like a fish out of water sometimes because of your age and
everybody else is younger, so that's always interesting because what's important to
someone who's twenty-eight is not important to someone who's in their fifties. But
there are people who are older than I am in the history department, so they probably
think that what's important to me is not important to them. Trying to learn a whole
new discipline is very disconcerting and difficult. Learning how to write all over
again when you're fifty. Learning how to think all over again when you're fifty
because your way of constructing analysis in history is just completely different than
anything else I've ever done. So you're learning a whole new trade later in life, and
it's hard sometimes because you've been successful at what you did before and all
of a sudden you're a nothing-not exactly a nothing, but we're nothings. We're sort of
at the bottom of the academic food chain as grad students and TA's, so that's been
[hard]. I've had some problems sometimes feeling like, I'm not this stupid, because
sometimes you can feel like you're really stupid because you don't know so much.
That's been hard for me, and just learning new things has been hard. I'll just slug
forward, I guess, because I can't go back. I have to succeed.
A: You've got some good inertia behind you. What do you think the university can do to
better meet needs of non-traditional students?
F: This is strictly personal, personally I'd start without those 7:20 classes, because by
9:00 at night, this non-traditional student is done. So I'd get rid of those 7:20-10:10
classes, and that's just a practical thing. I think sometimes I feel that trying to meet
the schedule is difficult for me because I'm older and I'm slower, so having to have a
paper in by such-n-such a date is sometimes really hard for me. I found taking my
qualifying exams to be an absolute nightmare because they're done over twenty-
four hours, but for me, as a non-traditional student, that really means six hours,
because all I've got in me is six hours a day. I'm not twenty, I can't stay up all night
and work on a paper anymore without it sounding like I've had a nervous breakdown
in the middle of the night and it's gibberish. So just things like that. I have arthritis,
so I can't sit at a computer for more than two hours without being in pain, and if I'm
in pain, then I can't really think. I can't take medication because then I really can't
think. So you can't deny that there are just physical constraints, and so that's what I
think. Somehow it seems like since I came to Florida I suddenly got old and started
feeling these things more. My arthritis was diagnosed down here. So you do get
these problems, but for me it's just physical things. I think we bring a lot to the table
because of our experience and also because we don't get upset about things that
someone who's twenty-eight might. So that's the good side of it, but there is also
the fact that I'm not as fast as I was in my twenties. Things are a little more daunting
at this age, so I sometimes have to work harder. There's good points. I think that
older people [can contribute], especially [in] history, because when they're talking
about the fifties and sixties, I remember it, so that can be a bonus. I remember
things happening but didn't necessarily know why they happened, so I'm sort of
learning why things happened in my life. I was very disappointed to find out that all
the hippies and stuff, basically that backlash led to Richard Nixon being elected. I
thought to myself, well if I knew that then, maybe I wouldn't have done what I did. So I
don't know, I think the physical part's the tough part, and just the physical stamina it
takes to get through reading a book a week for each class. But like I said, this is a
great time of my life and I'm learning new things, and that's the up side of it. Yes, it's
hard to learn new things, but it's also thrilling to learn new things. So all in all, I'm
very happy with the decision I made, though sometimes I'm a little lonely. I miss my
family, I miss my kids, so I think four years in Gainesville will be just right and I'll be
ready to move back. My daughter tells me I'm going to be a grandma in 2005, or
that's the plan, so I think I'll be going back at the right time.
A: Congratulations, and thank you very much for this interview. I enjoyed it a lot.
F: Thank you. Okay, great.