Why I Couldn’t Graduate From College Until Age 50 by Saloma Furlong

Why I Couldn’t Graduate From College Until Age 50 by Saloma Furlong

{I’m very pleased to welcome Saloma Miller Furlong to Later Bloomer. ~Debra}

My very first class at Smith College is an astronomy course.

The professor has put up an image of a child sitting on a sandy beach and this child is holding fistfuls of sand. The professor starts out by saying that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are grains of sand on earth.

He goes on to say that scientists do not know whether the universe is finite or infinite. But they do know, he said, that there are an infinite number of mysteries in the universe.

As I sit here, I try to absorb these cosmic ideas, I feel like my mind is expanding, to make room for all the new ideas I am being exposed to. 

Besides this astronomy class, I am enrolled in beginning German, Scandinavian Mythology, and a philosophy course on ethics. In a single instant, I know I am in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time. I am finally realizing my lifetime dream of earning a college education.

A lifetime of waiting only added to the feeling of euphoria in this rags-to-riches educational experience.

I am 47 years old, and I have just begun my education as an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College. The Ada Comstock Program is for women who have not finished their college education at the traditional age, for one reason or another. And I have my reasons.

I did not go to high school because I wasn’t allowed to.

I grew up in Ohio, and I wasn’t allowed to go to high school.

Why I Couldn't Graduate From College Until Age 50 at LaterBloomer.comYou might wonder how that’s possible in a country that has compulsory education laws. It’s because I grew up in a culture that is allowed to live by different standards than the rest of the citizens of this country.

I grew up Amish. Because of the ruling in the United States Supreme Court case, Wisconsin v. Yoder in 1972, the year after I had just graduated from eighth grade, the Amish became exempt from educating their children beyond the eighth grade.

And so they don’t. If you are thirteen and have just graduated from eighth grade, it doesn’t matter how much you want to go back to school, you cannot go back.

The roots of the traditions of the Amish are much deeper and stronger than your desire to go to school. Eventually you will have to come to terms with this reality.

It is a given that you work for your parents after that—either inside or outside the home. If you work outside the home, you are expected to hand over your wages to your parents until you’re twenty-one years old, unless you get married before that.

I finally rebelled against all the injustices in my life, including being physically abused by my mentally ill father, when I was twenty years old.

When I left, I went far away from home and the only life I’d ever known—I went all the way to Vermont. I picked Vermont because of the pictures I had seen in my seventh-grade geography books.

I loved my new-found freedom in Vermont. I established a social life, became a waitress, and began dating.

Then one Friday night, my adventures came to an abrupt end, when a van from Ohio showed up on my doorstep. The bishop. His wife. My uncle, also a minister. His wife. My older brother, who had brutalized me as I was growing up. My sister. A friend. They were all there.

They had essentially brought the community to my doorstep in Vermont. I could not run. I could not hide. I could not resist. And so I went back.

I had dated a young toymaker and street peddler, David, while I was in Vermont. I had to leave him and my new life of freedom behind.

I tried to make myself Amish for nearly three years, while David waited in the wings.

When I finally decided to leave, David drove to Ohio and took me back to Vermont. We were married a year and a half later.

I acquired my GED as soon as I left the second time, and began taking college courses. When I became pregnant with my older son, I decided to postpone my college education. But I promised myself that someday I would return to college.

When my sons were both in high school, I began taking classes at a local community college. I kept hearing about the Ada Comstock Program at Smith College. When I heard about it a third time, I decided to look into it.

When my older son was in his second year at Johns Hopkins University, and my younger son had just enrolled in his first year of college, I applied to Smith College. I was accepted with nearly a full scholarship. How could I say no to that?

And now, sitting in this cosmic class at Smith College, I am so glad I said yes. I may have come late, but I don’t care.

I am here now.

Why I Couldn't Graduate From College Until Age 50 by Saloma FurlongAbout Saloma

Saloma Miller Furlong graduated from Smith College at age fifty. She is the author of two books, Why I Left the Amish and Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds. Her story is featured in the PBS documentaries “The Amish” and “The Amish: Shunned” on American Experience.To read more about Saloma, check out her: Full Bio | Website | Blog | Twitter | Goodreads Page | Amazon Author Page.

[Debra’s note: My husband and I watched “The Amish: Shunned” and found it riveting. Very highly recommended. The beautiful post image is “Star of the Hero” by Nicholas Roerich (1936) via WikiArt.org.]

34 Responses

  1. Pavarti K Tyler
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story with us! I went to Smith as well, and had many friends in the Ada program. I’m so glad to have connected with you. 🙂
    Pav

  2. Saloma Furlong
    | Reply

    It is great to see you here, Pav. It is always fun to meet a fellow Smithie. So glad to connect with you as well.

    Have a wonderful rest of the weekend!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thank so much Saloma for sharing your fascinating story and thanks Pavarti for visiting.

      I’ve heard wonderful things about the Ada Comstock program at Smith and just realized it would make a great subject to write about here! Maybe profile several different graduates.

    • Amy
      |

      That would certainly be interesting to me, Debra! As was this article – I’m tempted to add her books to my ever-growing pile!
      Sending my best to you. Thanks for your great blog!

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Amy, I hope you get a chance to read my books. I know about an “ever-growing pile” of books. I have one also.

      Thanks for stopping by and for leaving comments.

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Hello Debra. What a great idea, to interview several “Adas.” I have a few names I can send you for a start, in case that is of interest to you.

      It is my pleasure to be here, and thank you very much for hosting my story.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I will definitely take you up on that, Saloma!

  3. Aleta
    | Reply

    Very beautifully said, Saloma. It was during my first literature class in college– My professor asked, “So what do you think this means?” And at that moment my mind opened wide in amazement with the realization: Just because it was written didn’t make it true. I could choose to think whatever I wanted about it. I haven’t stopped thinking yet!

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Isn’t it an exhilarating feeling, Aleta? And it is also great to have such a kindred spirit as you.

      Keep thinking and reflecting. It adds so much meaning to this earthly life.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      What a great story, Aleta. I too went to college late (in my 30s) and studied anthropology. Some of the best years of my life!

  4. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    What a riveting story. I had no idea that any religious group within the United States was allowed to keep their children out of school at the tender age of 13. I’m so glad Saloma persevered and got her education!

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Me too, K.B. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I’ve did a little research, Kathy, and found that religious exemptions are quite common and can be made on a case-by-case basis throughout the U.S.

      In other words, you don’t have to belong to a recognized religion to apply for a religious exemption to schooling! One state, Virginia, allows for the possibility of no education at all if a family truly believes it infringes their religious freedom. Several child’s right advocates are set to challenge it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Lindsay Edmunds
    | Reply

    This is a great story. So good to read of Saloma’s success and to connect in such an electric way to the joy of learning. What wonderful things teaching and learning are; no wonder fanatics of every stripe want to suppress and demean them.

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Isn’t that so true, though? And once our eyes have been opened, it’s not like we can even choose to go back to not thinking or reflecting.

      Thank you for your comments. I hope you get a chance to read my books.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Lindsay, I was formatting Saloma’s post the day the Nobel Peace Prize was announced. I thought Malala and Kailash outstanding recipients as activists for girl’s education and children’s rights respectively.

      Then I realized that we still have religious groups in the U.S. (I’m sure the Amish aren’t alone) who deny girls an education and use child labor. I’m still stunned.

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Debra, thank you for making that connection. I identify so much with Malala. She is still young enough to believe that she can change the world… and in many ways she is.

      The Amish believe in equal dis-opportunity. Their boys are also not educated beyond the eighth grade. And the boys’ work is often more dangerous than the girls’. They work with machines at a young age. This summer I saw an eight-year-old Amish boy driving a big farm tractor… little wisp of a boy for his age, too.

      If one reads the weekly Amish newspaper “The Budget” to know that many accidents do happen. Many of them are fatal.

      Any Amish young person wanting to further his or her education has to leave everything “known” (community, family, way of live, faith, and friends) to acquire that education.

  6. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    Wow, what a fascinating story! I think there are more Amish in Ohio than any other state in the US. But I never knew they weren’t required to attend school–or home school–past age 13. Great story of courage and perseverance–and romance.

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Thank you, Jennette. David is definitely the hero in my second book. And he has a few words of his own, written from his perspective in the book. I hope you get a chance to read my story.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it? I had no idea either, Jennette.

  7. Julia
    | Reply

    I admit it — I have romantic notions about the lives of the Amish. Wonderful story, and what an ending. What was your major? Will have to check out books and film. Thanks.

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      My major was German and I did a minor in philosophy. I was able to go to Germany for a semester abroad, too. My whole Smith experience was such an amazing and exhilarating one.

      I’ve been in two films, “The Amish” and “The Amish: Shunned.” I hope you get a chance to see both.

      Thank you for your comments. Happy reading!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Same here with the romantic notions, Julia! Saloma’s writing and the films she appeared in have been a real eye-opener for me.

  8. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    It is mindboggling what people go through in their life. I can’t imagine what bravery it took for you to leave the community at such a young age to strike it out on your own Saloma. And then to have what would seem like half of the community suddenly at your doorstep forcing you to come with them knowing what you’d face once you arrived back. I’m so glad that you were eventually able to fulfill your dream. You tell your story with such dignity. It just proves that we really don’t know what others go through unless we’re able to peer in through their own eyes. Thank you for sharing your experience! 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks for stopping by, Karen. Your comments are always so insightful. I’m still amazed by Saloma’s story and the perseverance it took to complete her college degree.

    • Saloma Furlong
      |

      Karen, it is my pleasure to tell my story, especially when people are so appreciative of it and identify with aspects of my story. There are times we all have to draw on our inner strength for whatever struggles we may be going through. This means we all have courage to do what we need to in order to be healthy and to thrive in our lives.

      Yes, it is in sharing our stories that we discover others’ struggles and how they’ve dealt with them. Stories connect us and help us know our place in the world. Powerful, they are!

      Thank you for coming by and commenting. I’m sorry I didn’t discover this until now.

      I wish you life’s best.

  9. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Loved this post, Saloma and Debra. The initial image was beautiful and really drew me in. Made me think about using Pinterest for more photos.

    The story, however, is the real thing. I have had the pleasure of becoming friends with Saloma because we share an Anabaptist heritage. I’m Mennonite and she was Amish. Back in the 17th century, our ancestors were part of the same Radical Reformation movement. Today there is a wide variety of beliefs among the two groups, but there are a few common ones also — especially peace and service to others. Both groups emphasize community and mutual support.

    We have had a lot of great conversations, comparing the stories of our memoirs with each other. This post, however, led me to a new question: in what ways am I also a later bloomer? I think the answer is that even though I broke out of my rural community at the age of 18, the part of me that I sacrificed along the way was the artist. I hope to recover that self in the “last third” of my life. Writing my memoir and touring with it was the first step. Thanks for giving me a little insight early this morning. 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I thought of you when reading Saloma’s story, Shirley, and wondered if there was a commonality. I think many of us sacrifice our artist along the way. I know I did. Very few cultures encourage that from day one. Here’s to finding that artist no matter how long it takes!

  10. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, I have no idea when this was posted. For some reason I have stopped getting your posts via email. That said …

    Saloma, I came to the end of this post with tears in my eyes. I used to think that being a 29 yr old freshman in college was old. I have since met many women like you who make that age seem like the late teen years.

    The desire to learn, to know beyond what we were told, can be the strongest emotion in our known and unknown universe. It is the power of the unfulfilled dream that gives us wonderful stories, works of art, the later bloomer with so much accumulated passion.

    Thank you so very much for sharing your journey 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thank you so much, Florence! I didn’t know you were a 29-year-old freshman. “The desire to learn…” Yes! It is a driving force of so much art. Got to check out why you’re not receiving posts. Will get back to you on that.

  11. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    It was interesting to me when you said a lifetime of waiting to go to college made you appreciate the experience more fully — I wonder if my experience of college would have been different if I had been striving to go there during my adult life, as opposed to simply applying because every other high school senior seemed to be expected to do. I probably would have emphasized actual learning over trying to get into grad school.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I went to college late, Chris, and it completely made me appreciate the experience. I’d knocked around taking classes I thought I should in the first round, but grew bored. Only when I went back to school in my 30s to study anthropology (finally earning an M.A.) did it all come together for me. I hope to do my Ph.D sometime in my 60s! Thanks for dropping by.

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