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Lessons of Success
Michele A. Bloom, Dean, The Women's College, Unive

When young men returned from World War II and the Korean War in the 1940###s and 50###s, they used their benefits under the GI bill to attain a college education. Their economic lives, and that of their families, improved significantly as a result. However, in recent years, colleges and universities nationwide report another dramatic phenomenon: record numbers of adult women returning to college to earn a degree. Often these women work full-time and maintain significant family responsibilities while going to school at night or on the weekends. They may take years to achieve their educational goal. What accounts for this trend and for this level of commitment?

I believe that these women understand quite well that opportunities will open to them with increased education. A college degree clearly leads to higher earnings and better career opportunities for women. Education helps women of color close the earnings gap with their white sisters, though women still lag behind men in earnings. Certain degrees, especially in mathematics, computer science, science or technology, lead to even greater opportunities and earnings. Did you know, for instance, that women who take eight credits of math or more in college significantly improve their lifetime earning prospects?

Many women, however, may not perceive the more subtle benefits of the educational journey. I see, almost daily, the benefits that accrue to the woman who is a student, not just the woman who has earned her degree. All along the way to the ultimate goal, women who attend The Women###s College at the University of Denver tell their stories of increased confidence, improved satisfaction, and new opportunities. Every time they dare to speak of their fears, their excitement, their sense of adventure, their worries, or their doubts, they hear an affirming, "You too?"

A student of The Women###s College recently described to me the impact of her education on her work performance. Not only has she learned new information and skills that are useful at work, but she has also acquired abilities and attitudes that have served her, and her employer, well. She reported that her previous performance had been at best mediocre, never resulting in praise or leading to success. While a student at The Women###s College, she learned to work towards higher standards, to meet expectations of demanding teachers, and to join her work effectively with that of others. As a result, she regularly receives positive evaluations from a "tough" boss and recently has earned formal commendations and even on-the-spot bonuses.

Her story stimulated my interest in the lessons we teach that are not the obvious ones. What habits are fostered as a consequence of pursuing your degree? How do these incidental learnings relate in a primary way to the requirements of the workplace?

Several authors describe an emerging work environment in the rapidly changing global economy of this decade. William Bridges, in JobShift, and Rosabeth Kanter, in When Giants Learn to Dance, urge us to see the effect of a workplace that has been ###de-jobbed." In a Time editorial in 1993, Lance Morrow described the "contingent worker" of the future, who constantly must sell her or his skills, invent new relationships with employers, as well as change and adapt continually. While there is plenty of work to be done, there are fewer jobs in the traditional sense of permanent, rigid assignments of repetitive work.

Economic security in the new environment resides not in job security, not in the position one holds, but in one###s characteristics as a worker and as a person. Bridges argues that three personal characteristics are necessary for security: Employability, or having the particular abilities and attitudes that an employer needs at that moment; Vendor-mindedness, or thinking of oneself as a vendor hired to accomplish a specific task; and Resiliency, or having the ability to bend, to let go and learn the new, to bounce back from disappointment, to live with uncertainty, and to find security from within, not from the outside. These traits are fostered in adult learning environments like ours at The Women###s College.

Each class that a student takes challenges her to master a new, unfamiliar environment, with a new "boss" and a new team. For example, students must rapidly assess the requirements of a new situation and then define and structure a complex set of tasks and expectations into a measurable outcome. She learns to work with others toward a common outcome that may include individual and group assignments. She must accept and use feedback and criticism. She learns to break a large and distant goal, graduation, into a set of attainable steps taken over a long time despite interruptions and competing demands.

Especially useful are the lessons of learning how to learn. You begin to understand how you learn best and how you can transfer learning strategies into novel situations. You learn to use the tools of learners, to find information, to communicate, and to explore solutions to complex problems. You discover that others know how to do valuable parts of projects and that quality outcomes depend on the appropriate sharing of knowledge, skills, and experiences.

No one at The Women###s College earns a college degree as an adult, part-time student without learning how to be responsible in the broader context of her life, her values, and her multiple responsibilities and relationships. Here, each woman finds her unique answer to the challenge of prioritizing, juggling, balancing, and integrating many demands and efforts. She finds that answer, however, in an environment that recognizes the struggle and that offers many examples of others who are succeeding in their own ways. Resilience is required here, just as it is in the changing workplace.

In her recent talk to faculty and students of The Women###s College, Robin Morgan, an internationally influential feminist, journalist, and poet, described the women###s movement as a revolution that begins, over and over again, woman by woman, with a unique sounding shot: one woman speaks her truth and another woman responds "You too?" In that moment of connected reality, previously unvoiced fear and despair often turn to power and hope.

What we see at The Women###s College almost daily is the encouragement of voice and the expression of personal power. This is not power over others, but the positive power and energy to change one###s life, to achieve one###s potential, and to make a difference in the world. As women begin to express their wills, to know what they want, and to commit to their goals, they feel powerful and energized. Everyone who visits The Women###s College on a class weekend notices the positive energy. What is it? I tell them that it###s the world changing, one woman at a time.

Michele Bloom is Dean of The Women###s College of the University of Denver. She has taught adults in a variety of educational settings, including universities in Colorado and Alaska. Visit The Women###s College homepage at http://www.du.edu/twc or for more information regarding the program e-mail: twc@du.edu