Going to college was not a tradition in my family—to a four-year college anyway. My middle-class grandparents completed some community college courses, as did both of my teenage parents some years after I came along, which was admirable in its own right. But there were no conversations around the family legacy at a particular school, or any probing by well-meaning relatives about where I would one day go—not even after I popped out of the womb with some pretty astonishing academic gifts and an obsessive adoration of school and all things educational.
Curious, I know. Reflecting back, I was surprised by that paradox myself. But then, neither side of my family was prone to prodding me in any one direction; they wholeheartedly supported me in discovering my own path.
I spent elementary and junior high school in love with pretty much every subject and strove with gusto to achieve bright and shiny As in them. But by the time I reached high school—though I remained a conservative “good girl” with no proclivity for partying—I grew less engaged academically and more focused on nailing my routines as a Song Leader, and on spending time with my beloved group of friends. 
While some, not all, of my pals were grumbling about trying to ace their AP classes and prep for the SATs, I felt relaxed in my plan to go to community college after graduation the way my family had. Having no idea what path I wanted to pursue, and not having a college fund, it didn’t make sense to me to shoot for attending an esteemed school. Not only had I not prepared a lick for that, but the desire simply wasn’t there.
Having no idea what path I wanted to pursue, and not having a college fund, it didn’t make sense to me to shoot for attending an esteemed school. Not only had I not prepared a lick for that, but the desire simply wasn’t there.
Fast forward seven years.
My maiden community college run had barely lasted a semester before I scored a job I loved working for Nordstrom. I left school for my full-time gig, and within two years I’d been promoted into management. I saw an exciting and gratifying road ahead, one that was replete with opportunities to move up and didn’t require a degree, and I delighted in saving my family—and myself—years of college tuition as I set my sights on an influential role within my company.
But by age twenty-five, after a second promotion and a lateral move to another rung on the corporate ladder, I experienced an overwhelming epiphany: I felt ready to go to college.
As much as I loved the ethos of Nordstrom, it suddenly hit me hard that I’d been skating on my childhood intellect a few years too long. I wasn’t dumb by any means, but I couldn’t hold conversations with other intelligent people about topics I felt I should, and it was as if the proverbial ticking clock that typically signaled a longing for mommyhood was for me a longing to learn and excel scholastically, just the way I had when I was younger. 
I will admit my newfound desire for higher education was a little more complicated at twenty-five than it might have been at eighteen. I had a grown-up life with grown-up bills, and going to school would mean stepping down from management to take a lesser—and much lower-paying—job in my company. Plus, I’d not only been out of high school for seven years, but I’d also never even taken the SATs. But I didn’t let that deter me. 
I immediately started researching schools and buying books like How to Get Straight As and How to Take Notes. I bought a hefty book of colleges and pored over all my options. It became clear that I needed to first go to community college to earn my stripes, then transfer to a college or university from there. So I enrolled in the fall semester, taking every piece of advice from my How to Get Straight As book and following it to a tee. As a result, I received As in all three of my first college classes and, sparked by a project in my English course, set a lofty goal of going to a prestigious women’s college.
The four years of community college that followed stupefied everyone in my circle. I worked two and three jobs while taking no fewer than three classes per semester—and I continued to earn As in every course. “How do you do it?” people constantly asked me. “When do you sleep?”
I’ll tell you how I did it.
I cared about being a student. I was there because I wanted to be, not because anyone expected or pushed me to be. I’d spent years in leadership positions and had immense respect for my professors, in roles that weren’t always respected. I embraced learning as a privilege, not an obligation. That, and my little dollop of maturity, made a world of difference.
I embraced learning as a privilege, not an obligation.
And the prestigious women’s college I wanted to go to? 
With my 4.0 in hand, I applied to and was accepted as a “nontraditional age” student at my dream school, Scripps College in Claremont, CA, where I transferred at age twenty-nine.
I commuted seventy-five miles round trip every day to attend that school. And because it was my dream, in my ideal timing of life, I relished every minute of it.
And my family? Each delighted one of them was present to see me graduate magna cum laude.


Stacey Aaronson