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Evita’s PhD Graduation (L-R Elisabeth, Martha, Evita, and Deborah)

We were both three, my sister-in-law and I, when each of our mothers decided to get degrees. Evita was in Peru. I was in New Mexico. Incidentally, both of our mothers studied music at that time. Her mother, Martha, pursued a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and my mother, Deborah, pursued a master’s in music composition. The decisions that our mothers made to enrich their lives through education marked a path for both Evita and me. We ended up going to Brigham Young University, which is where she met my brother and she and I became sisters.

Martha was one of seven children and her father didn’t think it was worth sending his daughters to college, so he would only pay for them to attend trade school. Martha wanted to study music, but since her father didn’t think it was practical, she studied English instead and became a secretary. It wasn’t until after she was married and had two children that she applied to a university for a four-year degree. The Universidad Nacional de San Agustín where she applied is quite prestigious and her community doubted her prospects, but she pressed on. After her exams, the list of accepted students was announced over the radio and Martha was included. Evita says, “She just went against the world and did it!” After her degree, Martha began teaching piano from her home. She recognized a lack of musical education in her church community and held free workshops to teach the youth how to play the hymns so they could accompany the congregation. Evita remembers falling asleep to the sound of her mother at the piano.

Evita recently graduated with her PhD in molecular biology. She didn’t begin with the intention to get an advanced degree, but she was encouraged by her professor and mentor to begin a master’s program, which eventually turned into PhD candidacy. While she was in school she felt conflict between her desire to engage in the scientific community and the religious ideology of women as mothers and nurturers. “I didn’t feel a motherly instinct,” she says. Two years into her degree she went to a large scientific conference. The first day she met many women who chose not to have children because they felt it was the only way they could keep up with the men in their field. The limits expressed by the choices of these women was deeply distressing to her. As she wrestled with this conflict, she felt a feeling of peace that God would support her either way. The next day at the conference she met women who had several children and continued to stay engaged in the scientific community. Her view was enlarged and she reported back to an ecclesiastical mentor, “I think nurturing means I can do a lot of things.” Her educational path merged with motherhood two years ago when she had her little boy, Charles.

My mother is also one of seven children. Her mother passed away when she was a teenager and there was a lack of uniformity in her home growing up. When she went to college, her father was encouraging and was able to support her financially. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she took ten years off and stayed at home with her four children. We moved to New Mexico when I was three and shortly thereafter she began going to school again. She was a student most of my adolescent life, following her degree in music with another in French and finally a PhD in English. Her pursuit of knowledge opened worlds of wonder and possibility for me.

I had my sights set on a university education from the time I toddled after my mother on the University of New Mexico campus. I never paused to consider whether I would follow my bachelor’s degree with a master’s degree. It seemed like the only path for me. I studied film at King’s College London, and when I finished I was ready to continue my trajectory and pursue a PhD. Through a series of rejection letters and some divine direction I learned that now is not the season. For the last few months I have felt as if I am at a crossroads without being able to see where either path leads. Then a dream I’ve carried tucked in my heart came true. I was hired as a cook at a local gourmet eatery. It is something I’ve often wanted for myself but I couldn’t find a way to harmonize my academic and culinary ambitions. But the seasons of my life changed, and academia shifted to a less prominent place, making room for something new.

In Evita’s and my religious community, education is often looked at as a back-up plan for women, but our own experience has shown us something different. As small girls we went to school with our mothers. We took classes for toddlers at the university. We studied at universities ourselves. She became a mother and a PhD. I became a master of film and a professional cook. Neither of us ever felt that our mothers were absent from our lives. (In fact, it never occurred to me that I didn’t have a stay-at-home mom until I was a teenager.) Instead, what our mothers’ education showed us is the far-reaching impact of a woman’s personal development. We grew in the shade of their accomplishment, and now we are growing alongside them as individuated and individual women.

Written by Elisabeth S. Weagel