The education of Paula Budnick

Thirteen years after beginning her studies at Penn, Paula Budnick, 47, is about to earn a bachelor of arts degree. She did it one course at a time.

Budnick is one of three women graduating from the College of General Studies who benefited from the Bread Upon the Waters scholarship fund, which pays tuition for women over 30 who show aptitude, commitment and financial need.

The fund, with a half-million-dollar endowment, asks recipients “to return something to us,” said Bread Administrative Assistant Cookie Belman, referring to Ecclesiastes 11:1, “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” That something could be giving money to the endowment or speaking at an event — or, as Budnick is doing, interviewing for an article.

Like most of those women whom Bread has underwritten, Budnick needed to work during the day. She was supporting a young child, Rachel, who in the course of her mother’s education grew up. Rachel will be at graduation, too. “She’s very proud,” said her mother.

Budnick herself is proud. When she first came to CGS, she’d been working for a nonprofit that provides residential services to people with alcohol and drug problems, with physical and emotional disabilities, with nowhere to live. She herself had been in recovery from drug addiction for four years. She still works there, but now she oversees the same programs she used to work in as the lowest on the totem pole.

Budnick now can laugh in recollection of the image she must have projected on the hot summer day she interviewed with Rhea Mandell, administrator of Bread, Budnick’s knee-high stocking tops showing beneath the hem of her suit skirt. She also can cry. “She interviewed me,” Budnick said, her voice breaking. “I was nervous as hell. [Mandell] said, ‘Is there anything else you want to tell me?’ I said I was a recovering drug addict. I don’t know why I said it. I usually don’t tell. But I knew I had to tell, and she gave me that scholarship. That was in 1989. And now it’s 2001 and I’m graduating.”

Budnick was one of the first seven Bread scholars to enter CGS. Since then, close to 65 have gone through the program, according to Belman.

The program sparked in Budnick a passion for learning. “It opened me up to a world I didn’t even know was missing.”

She went on about how a women’s studies course started her reading scholarly works by feminists. Next was history. “History became a passion for me, and I didn’t know that.” And then there was Spanish. Uncertain about her English language skills, she thought Spanish would be a struggle. Now she regrets that she took it as a pass-fail. “I was taught by a woman who understood how older students learn.”

In these 13 years she didn’t miss a class, she said.

“Even though I started every semester feeling different, feeling insecure, each class helped to build a block in the wall of self-esteem I have and who I am today,” she said. “I’ve only been able to do it because people supported me and believed in me at times when I didn’t believe in myself,” she said.

So forgive her if she’s a little emotional about her upcoming graduation, which she describes as the highlight of her life — besides having a daughter and getting clean.

The words on the invitation to her graduation party reflect the education of Paula Budnick. They come from Confucius, but Budnick herself could have written them: “It doesn’t matter how long you go, as long as you do not stop.”