How Our Amish Heritage Influences Our Education and Career: A Symposium

Symposium2

Photo from left to right: Jonas Brennaman, Ivan Fisher, Paul Nisly, Nancy Nisly, Rose Fisher, Luella Gilbert, Saloma Furlong, David Furlong, Aleta Schrock, Freeman Miller, Lizzie Hershberger, Harley Yoder, Lois Miller, Erma Miller, Naomi Clark, Marilyn Coblentz, Naomi Kramer Yoder (Links are to those who have blog posts here on About Amish and Beyond)


Several years ago I had a conversation with Steve Nolt, Director at the Young Center of Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, in which I voiced my idea of having a venue for those who have emerged from the Amish or the Plain Culture to share their experiences of finding their way to college from a humble eighth-grade education. Two years ago, Steve asked me if I am still interested in doing so. It took some time to bring that idea to fruition, but it was worth the wait.

Yesterday, a small group of former Amish, an Amish person, and a former Old Order Mennonite, along with several of our spouses, came together at the Young Center. It was a day to remember. Our small number did not impede (and may have enhanced) the honest sharing of stories of our journey to higher education from the humble education of our childhood.

Steve Nolt introduced the event with a bit of history about the Young Center, and then he turned it over to Freeman Miller. Freeman’s story is featured on an earlier blog post, “From an Eighth-Grade Education to a World-Renowned Pediatric Surgeon.” Freeman’s story was an inspiring start of the conference.

Next came a men’s panel discussion. Panelists were Jonas Brennaman, Paul Nisly, and Harley Yoder. Rather than trying to recount their stories, I have asked each of them if they would kindly send me their stories to publish here on the blog in future posts.

Luella Gilbert told the story of how she had to overcome the trauma from her childhood at the same time she was trying to leave the community and fend for herself, and how she made it to the career she has today. I will be publishing her triumphant story later as well.

After a lunch break, Naomi Kramer Yoder talked about the Amish Descendant Scholarship Fund. She and her cousin, Emma Miller, are the founders of the Fund. A discussion followed about how to get the word out to more potential candidates for receiving grants to help them through college. We also brainstormed the idea of creating a stand-in “family” for those who are going through college and graduating to be there for them in ways that families ideally do.

Next came the women’s panel discussion. Panelists were Rose Fisher, Lizzie Hershberger, Naomi Clark, and Marilyn Coblentz. I will also be asking each of them for their stories.

We organized two breakout sessions. 1. How we related to our Amish families once we were getting an education. 2.How has my Amish background helped and/or hindered my education and career?

I was in the first group, which was a thought-provoking discussion. Freeman Miller quoted Harley Yoder when he’d said earlier that his family was “humbly proud” of him becoming a physician. Freeman said that was also his experience.

It seems to be a common reaction from our Amish family members that when we talk about our education experiences it stops the conversation. In one case, an Amish woman snapped, asking why everything is always about education and how she doesn’t want to hear it.

I recalled the story of what it was like when I went to visit Mem once when I was attending Smith College. She asked me the strange question, “If you were still Amish and you had the chance of learning German, would you do it?” I had answered that I couldn’t imagine myself still in the Amish community, and even if I did, I couldn’t imagine what opportunities I would have for learning German. As it turned out, Mem was asking from her point of view, thinking I could teach her German. So I went out to my car and fetched a beginning German textbook and opened it and began explaining the lesson. Mem got quiet before she said, “Okay, that’s enough now.” She never asked me about it again.

I used this example to say that Amish women can be very competitive with one another, and that Mem was competitive with me. When I started typing letters to her, she got out an old typewriter and began typing a letter to me. She liked David so much, it seemed she was envious of my relationship with him.

We discussed how there is the sentiment among the Amish that to be smart is not humble. Their brand of humility is to put oneself down or to play small. I recalled how David and I once had a conversation in which I was asking him why he wasn’t giving me credit for a good idea I’d had the day before. I reminded him of how he is proud of his good ideas. He retorted, “Yeah, well I was not steeped in competitive humility like you were!”

There was also discussion about the the lack of understanding, or ignorance (sometimes even willful ignorance) our family members exhibit. A current scholar asked how to deal with family members when they say things that one knows is clearly not true. Do you let them believe in their conspiracy theories, or do you try to reason with them? Someone commented that this is not just a problem with our Amish families, but with the culture in general. A philosopher among us suggested that using the Socratic method of asking questions to reflect back to them what they have said might be effective.

I concluded at the end of our discussion that our Amish families simply do not have a frame of reference with which to relate to our college experiences. This was demonstrated later when Harley Yoder recalled how he was talking about college with an Amish man, and the man asked Harley, “What do you do for recess?”

Hopefully I will receive a report from someone who was part of the group discussing how their heritage has influenced their education and career choices.

My talk “From Meadow Glow School to Smith College and Beyond” came at the conclusion of the symposium. I will publish that later as well.

Overall, the symposium was a wonderful experience. I deepened those friendships I already had and made new ones. I look forward to the possibility of another conference or symposium in the future. There were many who would have liked to have attended but couldn’t for one reason or another. I hope next time they will be able to join us.

There will be more posts about the symposium later.

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Saloma Furlong

12 Comments

  1. Aleta on June 10, 2024 at 6:40 am

    Saloma, thank you again for organizing this symposium. It was very refreshing hearing from and conversing with others who understand, without the need for detailed explanations, where I’m coming from. It’s interesting how even after almost 40 years in mainstream culture, I still don’t totally feel like I fully fit in.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 10, 2024 at 8:52 am

      Aleta, it was so wonderful to connect with you again. I echo your sentiments about “not fitting in” to the mainstream culture. It was so refreshing to be with a group who understands what it was like to make the lonely journey to college with nothing but our eighth grade education and a GED to get us there.

      Thank you, Aleta, for your contributions at the conference. I look forward to the next time our paths cross again.

  2. Katie Troyer on June 10, 2024 at 10:52 am

    Loved this.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 10, 2024 at 11:01 am

      Katie, great to see you here. So glad you liked it.

  3. Peggy Pitcher on June 10, 2024 at 12:33 pm

    Catching up with you! What an experience this symposium must have been for each of you and an encouragement to others who have a similar background; a fresh reminder for us that your journey is unique, and not over… no one’s is! Thought of (and prayed for) you as we drove through MA yesterday, passing Holyoke. I will always treasure our time to meet and hear you speak at the college!

    • Saloma Furlong on June 10, 2024 at 1:32 pm

      Peggy, it is great to see you here! So glad you caught up. We are no longer living in MA. We are now in PA, soon to be in VT, and before this we were in VA. Nobody can keep up with our many moves.

      It was a wonderful experience to be together with others who understand this journey.

  4. Pamela Lakits on June 10, 2024 at 1:50 pm

    What a wonderful event!!!
    Hope this continues to bring people in who desire a higher education than their Amish communities would allow. How exciting for you Saloma to be able to be apart of this and help bring it all together. I look forward to hearing what you and the others had to say.
    Question, since I don’t have a college education and my vocabulary isn’t the biggest I’m not sure what a “Socratic method” is, never heard of this. Can you explain?????

    • Saloma Furlong on June 10, 2024 at 2:53 pm

      Hello Pamela. It was an honor and a privilege to bring this group together.

      The Socratic method refers to Socrates, an ancient Greek moral philosopher. We mostly know him through the writings of Plato. A good place to start learning about Socrates is from Wikipedia. Here is a link to that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates

      Thank you for asking, and it is great to see you here.

      • Pamela Lakits on June 10, 2024 at 3:40 pm

        Thanks Saloma!!! I will check it out!!!! I am an avid reader and love to learn new things through the written word—so will definitely look it up!!!!

  5. Celia Crotteau on June 10, 2024 at 2:44 pm

    I look forward to reading each story when it is published, and I must say that these are courageous individuals who have achieved much though their determination. I also like that you are considering establishing a support system to stand in for inactive family members at important times/events. God bless.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 10, 2024 at 2:55 pm

      Thank you, Celia. I don’t think there is anything I am as passionate about as education for my people. There is such native intelligence that runs through so many Amish families, and I hate for that to be “held down” as it often is.

  6. […] I had mentioned in my blog post on Sunday that Naomi Kramer did a presentation at the symposium on Saturday. It is hard to portray a PowerPoint presentation in a blog post, but I will do my best. […]

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