'Do Not Ever Change'

By Elizabeth Harperschurman

I was raised to be someone’s wife and have many children. Finishing high school was only semi-important, and college – let alone a four-year degree – was considered a waste of time. Unspoken but nurtured expectations from childhood that I was to be a wife and a mother still haunt me today. Yet here I am today, 56 years old and proud of my newly earned Bachelor of Science degree from Health and Human Performance at the University of Montana. I deserve this degree for many reasons but mostly because I have worked so hard for it. Against all odds I never let go of my dream.

Twenty-nine years ago, I started college at the University of Montana. My declared major was Home Economics Education. As I look back, I now realize choosing this major reflected the messages I’d been sent during my childhood. Thank goodness Home Economics was discarded at UM. And thank goodness my interests in health, nutrition and wellness were so well aligned with a newly declared major, Health and Human Performance Education. I made it through my junior year. But because I had four children and a job, was diagnosed with a lifelong disease, had a stepmother who committed suicide and a father who died of cancer, I became overwhelmed with responsibilities. I took a break from school and life in general.

Upon leaving school, Dr. Burns in UM’s HHP program gave me a piece of advice I’d always carry: “Elizabeth, do not ever change.” Those five words brought me back to school in 2005 when I took a few more classes and reached senior status. Yet jobs, family and finances made it hard to return to school for the final stretch, and I chose to leave school again.

Over the years, I dreamed often of returning to UM but always referred to “someday” when life would open up the opportunity. Still, the words of Dr. Burns stayed with me. I realize now that those words were a huge compliment to me as a woman who already had accomplished so much. Those words were also the ultimate challenge and an inspiration to continuing to dream of earning my degree, even while I remained mother and caretaker of so many others.

Then, in fall of 2018, Stephanie Domitrovich helped me create a plan to finish with a Community Health and Prevention Science emphasis in HHP. In December of 2018 I found out from Stephanie that I could finish my degree by May of 2019 and graduate! And I am proud to say that I am the first in my family to hold a bachelor’s degree! My excitement and hard work, day and night, along with the help of many supportive faculty staff, and family pushed me toward where I am today, at age 56, a UM graduate!

My story is not unique. I have met many women who have faced similar pressures to postpone or even abandon their educational dreams. Society is slowly changing, but many women are buried during the process. I cherish the relationships I built with women at the University of Montana. Dr. Annie Sontag, Dr. Laura Dybdal, Stephanie Domitrovich, Julie Stearns and Linda Green are powerful women who continue to nurture others. These women have shown me how to be strong and still be my compassionate self. Women of this quality teach us how to take care of who we are as women while following our dreams in an unequal world.  By watching and listening to them, I have found that I am able to follow my new career path in preventative health and fight for the dream that lives in my heart.

Going forward, women need freedom to be the many things they want to be. I do not believe we need to set aside our childhood nurturing or desire to nurture others. On the contrary, we need to be able to use that nurturing as a building block to realize our dreams. People in professional positions should continue to help women, of any age, realize their potentials. Women with families need to hear that their dreams are valid and achievable. Women should be celebrated when they juggle children, spouses, parents, work, and school. Women are strong in the many the rolls they choose, and it is imperative that these strengths be recognized.

I do not need to be like anyone else. I am a mother, a daughter, a graduate and a woman with a new career path – and I’ll continue to do all of these things well!