Tonight I am introducing a new story — this one of Emma Gingerich, who I have been corresponding with for more than two years. She first got in touch with me about publishing her story. I am certain she will get her story published, for hers is an amazing one of someone who had the wherewithal to leave her family and community because she knew that she did not fit into the community in which she was born. She has an irrepressible spirit that was just not going to be confined by the rules of the Amish church.
Emma is a resilient, thoughtful, intelligent person who will do well for herself. When she left the Amish, she did not know anything about college, but she earned her GED and was enrolled in college within a year after she left. I am inspired by her story because she is a good example of how the human spirit can overcome what may seem like impossible challenges and come out better for it.
Emma and I were interviewed for a show called “The Upside of Quitting” on Freakonomics Radio. You can listen to our interview by clicking on MP3 of the portion of Freakonomics Radio that contains our interview).
Here is Emma’s story in her own words.
In January 2006, I was finally able to leave my Amish family in Missouri and come to Texas at the age of 18. I had no clue what was in the future for me; all I knew was that I wanted to work and get some form of education. I had a lot of things to worry about, like getting a birth certificate, social security number, driver’s license, and my General Education Diploma (GED). I even looked at getting into high school, but was advised that it would be better to just get my GED. After I had gotten all the documents needed to prove that I existed, I got a job at Dollar General and began studying for the GED exam. Eight months later I passed the exam on the very first try and within a year after leaving home I was accepted into college. I went to Texas State Technical College in Harlingen, Texas where I was living at the time.
To pay for my courses, I filled out an application called FAFSA – which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Additionally, I had to provide four letters of recommendation because I did not have any of the required information from my parents. One was a personal letter from me, in which I had to explain my background, my plans for the future and why my parents were not supporting me. The second was a letter from my pastor (it could have also been from a counselor). The third had to be a letter from a friend or guardian, not a family member. The fourth letter was from a business organization that was familiar with my background. Those letters were presented in order to get a financial aid over-ride, so I didn’t need to have parent’s income tax information. Actually, I didn’t know if they even paid income tax, but I knew it was pointless to ask because there was no way they would give me that information. The people at the financial aid office were very helpful in making sure I did everything possible to get scholarships and grants, which was the only way I could pay for classes.
In the fall of 2007, I went to my first day of classes; saying that I was nervous is definitely an understatement. It felt like I was an inch tall and was in a foreign country. I had no idea what homework was or even worse, I didn’t know what quizzes were. Pop quizzes? Never heard of such a thing. Would I ask questions? No way! I would have rather died than ask the teacher something I didn’t understand. I knew if I started asking questions and talking I would have to explain where I came from because I had a bad English vocabulary and a thick German accent. For the life of me, I didn’t want anyone to know I used to be Amish. Instead, I would go home and bust my brains out trying to figure if I was doing homework right and attempt to remember what important information I had to know for the next class period. I was all alone in my journey; there were no fellow former Amish people in my area to lean on for support. Though, there was a couple who shared their home with me so I had a place to stay, which I was very grateful for.
The first year of college was very difficult but then the second year began to get easier. I graduated with an Associate’s degree in Agriculture Technology and without missing a semester I transferred to Tarleton State University in Stephenville Texas to get my Bachelor’s degree. I moved eight hours away from the few friends I had, to find myself all alone again. I didn’t know a single soul at Tarleton, but with gratitude, I kept my head up and kept going. Every year I had to write a personal letter to the Financial Aid Office, along with the other three letters of recommendation. I applied for scholarships where ever I could. One year, I won a $10,000 scholarship. I was thrilled out of my mind and gave all the glory to God. I, of course, had to keep my grades up in order to continue receiving grants and scholarships. The last two years I had to take out a few student loans because I wasn’t working and an opportunity came up for me to go to Africa with some classmates. I couldn’t turn down such an adventure, so I went along to do some research for a class project. I kept myself busy with classes, and making friends, but most of all, I was busy writing a book about my Amish life at the same time.
In May 2012, I graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences in Agricultural Occupation with emphasis in Crop Science. On graduation day, I was the happiest girl on the planet, but better yet, I was also very surprised. The pleasant surprise came from the President of the college, Dr. Dottavio. I had on my cap and gown and was proudly sitting on the front row, fourth person in line for bachelor’s degree graduate. Soon after the ceremony began, I heard Dr. Dottavio say my name. I felt my heart stop beating from the astonishment and I wanted to crawl under my chair so no one could see my embarrassment. I had no idea what he would have to say about me, but I listened as he told hundreds of people in the audience how I grew up in an Amish community and how proud he was of my achievement so far. I could tell he meant every word he was saying and by the end of his speech, I was in tears. There were no words that could express how grateful I was for going to a college that people loved and care about me. Of course, I couldn’t help but wish my mom and dad would’ve been there to see my happiness. Instead, they were 2,400 miles away in Maine and had no understanding nor did they care, even though I sent them an invitation. I was so ready to graduate from college; I told my friends that I was done with school for a very long time. That meant forever. However, God had a different plan for me. A month after graduating, I had the urge to go to graduate school and get my Master’s degree. I tried to tell myself no, but it just seemed to be the right thing for me to do.
My goal is to get a Master’s degree in something different to span my career options a little further. I have chosen to get a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with an emphasis in Public Administration. I am almost finished with the first semester of graduate school and I am glad with my decision to continue going to college. I am also working full time. I hope to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and I have also thought of a Business Law degree, but I don’t know yet if that will happen.
Thank you, Saloma, for giving me the opportunity to write my story and I hope it will inspire other Amish people to get an education. It is not an easy journey; believe me, I was in tears many times! But the degree(s) will be worth the hard work and dedication.