I would like to offer a special thanks to Saloma Miller Furlong for joining us in our effort and for the help she has extended to other former Amish people in need. No one knows the challenges these young people face when choosing a life away from the Amish community better than she does. And there is no better guide through turbulent waters, than someone who has already been there. Thank you for your strength and your help, Saloma. We’re excited to welcome you to ADSF.
Thank you, Emma. It is my pleasure to join your efforts in making a difference for others who are wanting to embark on their educational journey after leaving the Amish.
My name is Saloma Furlong and I grew up in an Amish community in northeastern Ohio. Like other Amish children, my school days ended after graduating from eighth grade. I’d been attending a one-room Amish school for five out of the eight grades. I wanted so much to continue my schooling, but it was just a given that I could not go on.
I left my community twice — once when I was twenty and again when I was twenty-three. One of my main reasons for leaving the second time was to acquire a formal education. I acquired my GED within a year after leaving the second time, and then I began taking college courses at Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont.
My husband, David, and I were married a year and a half after I left the final time. In my second semester at Burlington College, I found out I was pregnant. I decided I wasn’t very good at dividing myself between two important things — being a mother and being a student. So I decided to be a full-time mother, but I promised myself someday I would go back to school.
When my older son, Paul, was in his first year at Johns Hopkins University and my younger son, Tim, was in high school, I decided it was now my turn. So I enrolled in courses at Community College of Vermont. I loved taking college courses as much as I loved going to school when I was a child.
When I first heard about the Ada Comstock Scholars Program at Smith College, which is designed for women who have not finished their education at the traditional age for one reason or another, I dismissed it out of hand, given there would be a three-hour one-way commute each week from where I was living. But when I heard about it for a second, and then a third time, I decided it was time to look into it. I did. I had an interview with Sid Dalby, who was wonderful. I applied and was accepted into the Ada Comstock Program with nearly a full financial aid package. I couldn’t resist that — and I’m so glad I didn’t!
I transferred my credits in from Community College of Vermont to Smith College. That summer I read through the course catalog and marked all the courses I was interested in. When I counted them, there were more than 100 of them! So I kept narrowing my choices until I got it down to four — Beginning German, Astronomy, Scandinavian Mythology, and Ethics.
In September 2004, at the age of 47, I started my first semester at Smith. The very first class I attended was Astronomy. The professor had an image on the overhead projector of a child sitting on a sandy beach with fistfuls of sand. He started out the class by telling us there were more galaxies in the universe than there are grains of sand on earth. He also said that scientists don’t know if the universe is finite or infinite, but they do know that there are an infinite number of mysteries in the universe. Wow! I felt like my mind was expanding to make room for all the ideas and concepts that I was being exposed to. This was an experience I had for the two and a half years at Smith. It was like being in college heaven! I had the opportunity to do an internship with Dr. Donald Kraybill, at the Young Center at Elizabethtown College; study abroad for a semester in Hamburg, Germany; write a children’s book in German; visit historic sites in Europe that pertained to my Anabaptist heritage; and then I graduated, with a major in German and a minor in Philosophy. This was only weeks before I turned fifty, and I was wearing the gown that my son, Paul, had worn when he graduated from Johns Hopkins University a year before.
Nearly all the wonderful things that have come about since I started my first semester at Smith — finding a place to live in Germany for my semester abroad; meeting a lifelong friend in Germany; publishing my memoir, Why I Left the Amish; getting my job in the German Department of Amherst College; and moving to the Pioneer Valley where David and I have found and renovated a 1920s home — are directly or indirectly related to the connections I made at Smith College. And then all these experiences have led to others. For example, getting my memoir into print has made it possible to become a public speaker, something I have always wanted to be. I have delivered more than 120 talks so far.
Telling my story and talking about my heritage has led me to realizing that it is time to reach out to others who are embarking on the journey I made more than thirty years ago, especially when a young woman, who just left her very strict community, stepped into my life.
The gap between an eighth grade education and a high school education with technology training has grown. The retention rate in Amish communities overall has grown to around 90 percent. I hope this is because young people want to join their communities, but my concern is that these young people don’t believe they can make it on their own — this education gap can feel just too daunting.
Just when I was trying to figure out how to reach out, along came this vivacious, intelligent, committed young woman named Emma Miller who conceived of the idea of an Amish Descendent Scholarship Fund on the day of her graduation. For more about her, visit my blog About Amish. Since then she has garnered the support of two other former Amish young people — Naomi Kramer and William Troyer — to help implement the idea.
Through email communication, Emma and I have found much in common and she has welcomed me aboard to help support this venture. I will be taking on the responsibility of posting to this blog regularly. Stay tuned on how often I will be able to do that. I hope we can collect stories from former Amish people about their educational journeys and share them on this blog. If you have such a story to tell, or you know someone who does, please email me: salomafurlong[at]gmail.com.
If you haven’t already, make sure you visit our website, Amish Descendent Scholarship Fund. We would love your support. You can donate via mail or online.
Please also visit my personal blog About Amish, where I write about many aspects of Amish culture and my life journey.