Staff Q&A: Isabel Boston

STAFF Q&A/Twenty years after leaving college to start a family, Isabel Boston took a job at Penn—and soon started the long journey of finishing her degree.

“I thought I’d be a fool not to do it.”

Ask Isabel Boston what it’s like to go back to college after a 20-year absence—taking Ivy League courses in everything from Medieval music to Latin while also balancing a husband, five kids, and a day job—and she’ll tell you: It’s really hard.

“It was intimidating,” says Boston, an administrative coordinator in the Department of Urban Studies. “Penn kids are smart. They’re sharp. And I wasn’t sure if I had the ability to keep on going after being out of academia for so long.”

Turns out she did. Though there were long days, stressful nights and some awkward walks to work when she may have been paying more attention to her flash cards than she should have, Boston this month will get her long-sought-after degree from the College of General Studies. And she’ll graduate as a Dean’s Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Boston had always wanted to finish her degree—she had enrolled at Rutgers, but then left school to get married and have kids—but she didn’t see how she would ever fit college into her hectic schedule. Then, in 1999, she took a job at Penn and soon learned of the many programs available to Penn staffers wanting to further their education. It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“I felt like it was something I needed to take advantage of,” she says.

Q. Did you apply for a job here at Penn with the idea of going to school in mind?

A. It was actually an afterthought. It was more that I needed full-time employment. I had already worked part-time at the Penn Library. It was more of a benefits issue, and [education] comes along as one of the benefits. It wasn’t on my mind at first—I have five kids at home, so it wasn’t really even considered. There was no way, I thought, I was going to fit that into my time.

Q. So how did you end up actually going for it?

A. I was working at the Graduate School of Education. I was there for five years, and it was while I was working there that I thought about taking classes, for a couple reasons. One is because, not having a degree, I didn’t feel very marketable. I started working here without any real job experience, other than raw ability. I had been at home since I was 20. I got married young, had kids. And I had a couple practical reasons for my studies. I’m a choir director, but never really took any formal music classes. I grew up in a music school, and I have a lot of music background and have been in choral programs my whole life. I know a lot about music, but I never really studied it. I also wanted to study Latin, because I’m a church musician. I thought this would be a way to get some kind of academic credential, as well as something that would be a practical application to this other aspect of my life. I thought I’d be a fool not to do it.

Q. How many classes were you taking at a time?

A. I would take three courses every year, except one year I had to do a jumpstart—so I did two each term, which was hard, and I had to back off of that. It was worthwhile, though. That little bit of a jumpstart made me see real progress. I could have let it draw out over seven years—it would have been easy to do that—but I wanted to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Q. How did your family react when you first started?

A. It was a tradeoff. I wondered, “Am I being really selfish?” That was really hard. Was it just for me? I tried to look at it long-term, as a credential to become more upwardly mobile in my job prospects.

At one point I was looking for another job. I wanted to switch out and started to realize an awful lot of the positions that were a step up required a degree. I had thought at first, “This will be great. Me and my kids will do our homework together, and I’ll be able to give them this role model image.” But my youngest, my daughter, it was hard for her. She hated that I had to study at night. It was hard on my husband.

I didn’t have any free time for a while. When I was doing a language course, I would be walking back and forth from work and doing my flash cards. They’d be sitting on my desk, so I could look at my flash cards.

Q. Was there any one class that was your favorite?

A. Yes. Medieval Music with Emma Dillon. I thought I would never be able to do it. It was just phenomenal. We had to analyze a manuscript from a collection … that had not yet been catalogued. We had to try and determine what it was, from what location, what century. It was like doing detective work. It was fascinating.

Q. And the Latin courses, you say, are actually applicable to your daily life?

A. The Latin classes were good, because they help me translate the texts [for my choir]. When I’m perusing manuscripts, now I can know, literally, what the manuscripts are for, or what season the piece would be for, rather than just trying to find a translation. Now, I’m not fluent or anything, so that’s another thing I still need to study. I’ll have to take a Latin class once a year just to practice.

Q. Overall, did the experience live up to expectations?

A. I don’t know that I had any expectations. It felt so odd. It was really hard being that old. I’m not ancient, but I was much older than the other students. And I didn’t take all evening classes. Being on campus, I was able to go to class with the younger students, and in most of my classes, I was the oldest person.
But then again I had a different kind of focus, too. A different kind of drive.

Q. Would you have any advice for Penn staffers who might be considering doing what you just finished?

A. Expect to work hard. I think it took some courage just to get back in the classroom.

Isabel Boston