I have come to realize that I am a product of “hardy stock” –a line of strong women. Both my mother and her mother were born in Pacific Junction, Iowa, a town that regularly experiences the flooding of the Missouri River. When I asked my mother “why do people stay?” Her reply was, “It’s their home, where would they go?”
They both did move, however, onto other farms in small towns nearby. This was during the depression of the 1930s, and being on a farm usually meant you could grow food for your table, but there was not much money to live on when the cash crops failed. However, they both had something more important than money – they had an education.
Grandma Johnson began to teach right out of high school while she was earning her teaching certificate. Following graduation, she traveled to Wyoming to take up her first official teaching position. It was not too surprising that my mother also pursued a teaching certificate when she graduated from high school at age 16. Her plans to teach never were realized because she married at age 19 and set up housekeeping with her husband on a farm where she had two daughters before her husband died 10 years later. Not able to farm by herself, she sold the land and worked at two jobs prior to moving to Utah with her second husband and her girls. Like my grandma, my mother was able to overcome difficult circumstances because of her unshakable work ethic and her education.
My mother was a valued employee with several companies in the Ogden area and even started her own collection agency before being hired by the federal government as an accountant. Even though she never actually taught school, her education had not been wasted, especially when it came to raising her two daughters. We both went to college (not as common then as it is today), and I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Home Economics & Human Relations before marrying and beginning our family. I was able to realize my mother’s dream and taught at Ogden High School until the demands of family kept me home.
We were blessed with five daughters and one son. I became a “stay-at-home” mom who didn’t stay at home much. I found that I could influence my children’s education by being in their schools; I was always active in the PTA and involved in many of their activities, both educational and extra-curricular. Our kids all loved school and excelled, partly because we, their parents, were engaged in their education. Studies have shown that when parents are in their children’s schools, even just walking in the front door and out the back, their kids perform better in their classes.
As our children became involved in school all day, my husband suggested that it might be possible for me to actually “get paid” for some of the time I spent volunteering in the schools and community. I put out a few feelers among the other volunteers and personnel with whom I’d worked, and in 2 weeks I had an offer from the superintendent of our school district. He said, “Carolyn, how would you like a job, a challenge? We’re thinking of starting up a high school completion program under the direction of our Adult Education Director [another woman!] and I think you might be just the person we want to undertake such a program.” I accepted the position and before long two other nearby school districts had begun similar programs. We were able to help many students finish up their high school requirements on the two nearby college campuses, a boon to students who had struggled to complete high school for a variety of reasons. I was grateful that I could use all the experiences I’d had as a volunteer to help build a program giving struggling students a second chance.
That experience, along with many others, has taught me that when we take advantage of the need for volunteers in our churches, schools, and communities the things we learn and the people we meet come back to enrich our lives for years to come. There is so much good that needs to be done, and we need to dig in with both hands wherever we can to lighten the load of others and participate in building our neighborhoods and communities. My upbringing and training have caused me to abhor waste—I even save Ziploc bags and tin foil! But more than anything else, I can’t stand to see the waste of human potential, as both children and adults fall short of what they could accomplish. I regret that there are some in our state, women especially, who find themselves unable, for various reasons, to take advantage of what is out there, ready to be realized, ready to be achieved.
I have been blessed with working from the position of possibility. People would often say to me, “Oh, Carolyn, you can do anything.” The difference between me and those who say, “Oh, I could never do that,” is that I didn’t know I couldn’t do it, so I did it. So often we have already decided we couldn’t possibly do a certain thing – and we haven’t even tried. Why do we have so little faith in ourselves, I wonder? If we could just vaccinate our children, especially our young women, who face a confidence gap from an early age, with resiliency, with an “I can do it” gene, how much better off they and our whole world would be!
We can all do our part to make sure that the young (and not so young) women within our sphere of influence find that position of possibility. We can help them secure the resources and support they need to realize every bit of their incredible potential—to make sure not one drop of it is wasted. Can you imagine the great things we could accomplish, each of us working together, as women and men using our full potential to bring about positive change in Utah? The possibilities are endless!
Carolyn Thompson is the former first lady of Weber State University, where she and her husband Paul served for 12 years. In addition to developing a high school completion program for what was then Utah Valley Community College, she has served in numerous community positions, including City PTA President in Provo, a member of the board of Utah Musical Theatre, and on two separate library boards in the Ogden area. Carolyn is an ambassador for the Utah Women and Leadership project. She and her husband have 6 children and 29 grandchildren.