For the Love of Learning
It’s a long way from Harrison, Tennessee, to Russia, and the distance isn’t measured simply in miles. For Melissa Caldwell, the gulf between start and finish would have been way too wide without some help.
Caldwell (Knoxville ’91) is a college professor and author of two books on Russia. She spends several months a year in the country that has fascinated her since she was a teen. But family financial problems nearly stopped Caldwell’s career before it began.
“I was determined to get out of Harrison [in Hamilton County, Tennessee] and experience a broader world,” she says. “My ambitions as a student at UT were to learn as many things as I could, read as much and broadly as possible, meet many different kinds of people, travel to as many places as possible, and ultimately challenge myself and find out what I could do as a person and a scholar.”
Specifically, she wanted to study the Soviet Union, as Russia and 14 other soviet socialist republics were then called. She had spent a summer living with the family of a Finnish pen pal on Finland’s border with Russia and had attended the Governor’s School for International Studies. She began studying Russian in her first term at UT Knoxville and developed an intense interest in anthropology.
But her dad was laid off from his job, and Caldwell’s dreams slammed head-on into a financial roadblock. The UT alumni association came to her rescue with scholarships, and Caldwell’s career plans proceeded full steam: she earned a bachelor’s degree at UT Knoxville, a master’s from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. at Harvard. For her Ph.D. studies, she lived in Russia for a year. She stayed at Harvard to teach for 3 years and now is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California–Santa Cruz.
“I have the opportunity to travel and meet interesting people,” she says. “I spend several months every year living in Russia for my research. As a professor, I have the wonderful opportunity to teach and work with students from all over the world. I also have the luxury of being in a profession that requires me to read and write. Sometimes I feel a momentary feeling of guilt when I confess I’ve spent entire days reading or writing–but that passes quickly!”
Education opened up the world to her, she says. “None of the things I’ve accomplished would have been possible without the training and support I received at UT. My professors at UT taught me how to write and think critically, to look at the world objectively, and to embrace diversity of ideas and experiences.
“I am extremely grateful to my professors at UT and for the resources UT invested in me and my education. In particular, I feel especially indebted to the people whose support to the UT alumni association funded my scholarships.”
Struggle Was Worth It
Math gave Amy Hicks nightmares. Nevertheless, after she graduated from Bradley Central High in Cleveland, Tennessee, her parents made it clear she would go to college.
Hicks chose UT Chattanooga, where she majored in psychology.
“I struggled my entire life with math, and college was no different. I remember wanting to quit and give up, and at one point I almost did quit college. My parents insisted that quitting was not an option.”
Receiving a bachelor’s degree was a personal triumph. With that accomplishment under her belt, she returned to UTC to work toward a master’s.
“I will never forget taking out the catalog and crying when I saw the math courses I would have to take,” she recalls. Her husband, also a UTC alumnus, was “the encourager,” and Hicks earned a master’s degree in community counseling.
“I am now an elementary-school counselor, and I share my story every year with the children,” she says. “I am one-hundred-percent honest and tell them how much I struggled with math, how I had a tutor, how I wanted to quit, and how I never made better than a C.
“I use this to help them see how wonderful college was and how things are not always easy. There were wonderful people along the way–my family, my husband, and the staff and students at UTC, who always encouraged me.
“I now love my life and my career. It is a dream come true. I am able to work and help others. I also have recently written a children’s book and have established a pet-therapy program using my dogs in counseling.
“College was a vital part of my life. It helped to guide and direct me, and now I am able to give back to others. Thanks UTC!”
Education Is Hope
Eva Young (Knoxville ’01, ’05) worked hard for her UT degrees. But she says getting an education is just the beginning. “To truly be educated in this society and ensure future generations of Tennesseans are not mired in poverty, we must all resolve to put an end to our pervasive collective mindset that life owes us instant gratification with minimal effort.”
Writing in an op-ed column that was published in the Nashville Tennessean, the dean of DeVry University in Nashville told how her mother inspired her to succeed.
“My mother dreamed big dreams. All of them were for me.
“Even though she raised me on a dime and never went to college, she believed I would one day earn my doctoral degree. Yes, we were poor. But we did not live in poverty. Poverty is not just the lack of money, the lack of education, or even the lack of both. Poverty is rooted in the depths of generations without hope. It is a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of dying.
“Because of my mother and numerous other mentors who encouraged me on my own educational journey–and because of my experiences as a teacher and mentor to others–I know that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.”
Young says she tells her students they must “be prepared to meet challenges and make sacrifices” to reap the benefits of education. “I impress upon them that they have to aggressively seek out opportunities for themselves.”
Young did a tour of duty in the military, “worked multiple jobs, and even cleaned houses to put myself through graduate school.
“I ultimately prevailed, and my life is richer for it–richer in knowledge, perspective, and experience. My dream is to join with other educators to bring an end to the mindset of poverty.”