After three decades, a quest fulfilled

A famous television ad from the late 1960s showed Abraham Lincoln being rejected for a job because he lacked a college diploma. Gayle Collins (ASC'98) can relate.

As she described it, the typical response she got from employers when looking for professional jobs was "Oh, you're perfect for this. Oh, you don't have a degree? Sorry, you're no longer perfect."

And so it came to pass that, nearly three decades after the Louisiana native interrupted her college career to raise a family, she returned to school full-time and found that there was more to it than getting that piece of paper.

Now 52 and a master's degree student in the Annenberg School, Collins has found a great deal of personal satisfaction, intellectual stimulation and companionship.

Gayle Collins (ASC'98) hasn't made up her mind about the effectiveness of civic journalism, but believes that it should "give voice to the voiceless."

Candace diCarlo photo

Collins had entered college intending to pursue a career in medicine -- "largely playing out my father's vision," she said.

In the fall of her sophomore year, however, she met a young man from Kentucky who was stationed at a nearby Air Force base, fell in love and got married.

"By the end of my sophomore year," she said, "I was pregnant with my first child, and that was the end of my college round one. He had really not a whole lot of interest in my continuing college."

The couple moved back to Kentucky, finally settling in Louisville, where they had four more children. Then, in 1979, with their youngest child all of five years old, her husband left her. The couple divorced the following year. Suddenly, she was on her own, with five children to raise and only her own wits and a small amount of child support to live on.

At first she worked a series of part-time jobs, but, she said, "then I went out into the real world and got a regular job, and I found that because I hadn't completed my degree, I was constantly butting my head up against ceilings, because I didn't have the right credentials."

She did manage to find a full-time position with a University of Louisville social work program that allowed her to take two courses each semester for free. And while "getting that piece of paper" was the initial impetus for her to take advantage of the fringe benefit, she said, "it became increasingly apparent to me that there were new things I could learn."

In 1994, with her children all grown, she returned to college full-time -- this time pursuing her own interests as a student of political communications.

Her interest in the effect of media reporting on public policy led her department chair to recommend that she apply to Annenberg, which she did, against the recommendation of her faculty advisor. But, as she put it, "they'll never say yes if you don't ask" -- and Annenberg said yes.

The move to Philadelphia brought with it a number of dramatic changes -- besides moving to an older, denser, larger city, she was for the first time living completely by herself -- but she has taken to her new environment like a fish to water. In her classes, she says, "I'm treated like a peer, not like the 'class mother,'" and while she is indeed old enough to be her classmates' mother, she has established close friendships with many of them.

The self-described "bleeding-heart liberal" has chosen "civic journalism" as her thesis subject, and while she hasn't yet taken a side in the sometimes-heated debate over its worth, she does have definite views about its purpose: "It ought to give voice to the voiceless," she said.

Originally published on April 2, 1998