Goshen College Bulletin Story about Amish Descendent Scholarship Fund

An article featuring Naomi Kramer and her involvement in the Amish Descendent Scholarship Fund was printed in the Winter 2012/2013 issue of the Goshen College Bulletin. For the full article and associated images, you can go to: http://blog.goshen.edu/bulletin/ and navigate to page 22 and 23.

It is a wonderful thing for the Amish Descendent Scholarship Fund to garner this attention. Many thanks to the people in the Communications and Marketing office at Goshen College for writing such a wonderful article,  to Naomi Kramer for providing the inspiration for it, and to Emma Miller for conceiving of the idea of the Amish Descendent Scholarship Fund. And thanks to Brian Yoder Schlabach at Goshen College for making this article available for this blog post.


Naomi Kramer ’12 Is Aiding Those From A Similar Background

What happens when a needy student cannot get financial aid to attend college? Like other students of Amish descent, Naomi Kramer ’12 faced that dilemma because her parents did not support her decision to attend college.

After five years of sacrifice and struggle, Kramer has achieved her dream. Now she is trying to help others by co-founding the Amish Descendant Scholarship Fund, which aids former Amish people who want to go to college. Kramer started the fund along with three other former Amish: her cousin, Emma Miller, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from San Diego State University; William Troyer, who is studying at the University of Akron; and Saloma Furlong, who graduated from Smith College and is the author of the memoir, “Why I Left the Amish.”

“Not only can the parents not help pay for school fees, in many cases the student cannot live at home with the parents or get any financial help since the parents are not supportive of them getting their education,” said Miller, who left her Amish family in Missouri when she was 16 and now is working on a master’s degree in economics and finance at London Metropolitan University. “So they’re paying for their tuition and completely supporting themselves at the same time.”

In addition, most students of Amish descent cannot receive federal aid because in order to qualify, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which requires a parent’s signature if the student is younger than 24. “My decision to leave the Amish and go to college was obviously not what my parents had wished for me and I did not want to disrespect them by asking them to fill out the FAFSA,” Miller said. “So for the first three years, I did not get any financial help.”

The same was true for Kramer, who grew up in Jamesport, Mo., and started working when she was 13, first in a bakery then taking care of a garden at a boarding school. “As I approached 19, I had a feeling of discontent,” she said. “The next stop for me was to get married and settle down, but I wanted to see the world. I felt called to do something more.”

Kramer left home, moved to Sarasota, Fla., began working in a nursing home and studied for the GED test. It was while working as a nurse’s aid that she realized she wanted to be a nurse. “I had a non-responsive patient I was working with, and one day I decided to take the patient’s hand and began singing to her. I think it was ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,'” said Kramer. “The patient began crying and I knew that she could hear and feel what I was doing.”

Kramer said it took a while to adjust after leaving her Amish community. “I still wore a head covering to bed for a while, since we were taught growing up that Jesus could come to you at any time, even at night,” she said. Eventually, she came to enjoy things like driving a car and using a cell phone.

Although Kramer has maintained a good relationship with her parents and six siblings (two of whom also have left the Amish way of life), they disagree on the value of higher education. That issue divides other Amish children who want to pursue an education, said Goshen College Professor of History Steve Nolt ’90, an expert on the Amish.

“Amish parents would typically say that eight grades of normal schooling is all one needs to live a successful and contented Amish life. Amish people would say that your most important education doesn’t happen in school, but that education is broader than that,” Nolt said. For the Amish, having an apprenticeship or working on a farm or in a family business is far more important.

“There are also issues with the fact that higher education in general stresses critical thinking, creative thought and individual expression, and those are all values that run counter to the predominant Amish values of cooperation, humility, community, separation and obedience,” said Nolt. “So high schools and colleges are schooling people in values that are quite different from the predominant Amish cultural values.”

Kramer agreed, “The Amish mindset is that further education leads to jobs of the world, leading you astray of the simple life.”

So when Kramer and Miller decided to go to college, it meant leaving their community and everything they knew. Since they chose to leave before being baptized into the Amish church, they are still able to maintain contact with their families. In contrast, Nolt explained, those who join the church through baptism and then decide to leave are excommunicated and shunned.

Those who leave the church before baptism often receive financial support, although the amount varies based on relationships within families and whether the parents have a conservative or progressive outlook, said Nolt.

In her case, Kramer began her higher education at a community college in Florida. After a year, she decided to seek a college that would be a better cultural fit – one near an Amish community. Eventually, she learned about Goshen College through an online search and enrolled in 2008.

“Financially it was hard. I always struggled to work hard during the summer and the school year and I put what I earned toward college,” Kramer said. She also received some grants and took out loans her last two years. And a few people also made contributions to support her education.

Among those who helped was Esther Kern ’67, who was raised in an Old Order Amish family. After completing high school, she worked as a nanny in Goshen, where she met Isabelle Chapman, the sister of Harold Schrock, one of Goshen College’s most generous donors.

Chapman was fascinated by Kern’s story, and one day asked Kern what she wanted to do with her life. Kern said that she wanted to be a nurse. Since all of the money that Kern earned went to her parents, and they didn’t approve of higher education, Kern said that she had no way of paying for nursing school. Chapman encouraged Kern to apply to the Goshen College nursing program, and provided financial support each semester.

When she graduated, Kern approached Chapman about repaying her debt. “She said, ‘You don’t owe me a cent. You are doing a service to your fellow man. I’m too old to do that, but I have the money to help you do it.’ It was such an incredible gift.”

In October 2010, Kern met Kramer and decided to pay forward Chapman’s generosity. “I’m 70 years old, and I feel as though I’m still honoring the gift Isabelle gave to me,” Kern said.

Kramer said her commencement was an amazing day, because her entire family attended. “I never knew when I started I would have that day – graduation.”

She now works as a medical surgical nurse at Memorial Hospital of South Bend and is happy to be putting her education to use. “It feels like a really good accomplishment. Amish women are raised to be nurturing. It was rooted in me that my role should be as a housewife and mother. I’ve really liked that I’ve been able to [be nurturing] in my career.”

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The Paradox of Worldly Knowledge

I’ve been enjoying the gathering of stories from former Amish people who have acquired formal education after leaving their respective communities.

Today I’ll share a story of a former Amish couple in Holmes County, Ohio: Wayne and LaVina Weaver. I first met them at the Amish Conference at the Young Center in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania in 2007. Since then we’ve enjoyed wonderful conversations and they were gracious enough to host David and me for an overnight visit at their beautiful home.

Wayne Weaver is the author of the memoir Dust Between My Toes about the journey from his Amish childhood to becoming a medical doctor. I hope LaVina will someday write her memoir, for she has done some admirable and courageous things in her life, including working as a nurse on a mission in Haiti.

Both Wayne and LaVina have remarkable life stories. With their permission, I am sharing excerpts of stories printed about them in the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, along with links to both stories.

The first article was published in the Chicago Tribune on May 16, 1997 and is still available online.

The Prodigal Physician

Returning To The Country Roads Of His Birth, An Amish Son Relearns The Art Of Visiting

MILLERSBURG, Ohio — Playing daily in the emergency room of the local hospital is a real-life soap opera that might well be titled “You Can Go Home Again.” One recent afternoon, Dr. Wayne Weaver, who sews up the lacerations and sets the broken bones that come through the ambulance-service doors, was tending to a bearded young man wearing the 18th Century European peasant garb favored by the huge local Amish community. The man had a nasty cut below his knee, the product of too close an encounter with a chain saw.

“Who are your parents?” asked Weaver, 59. But before the young man could answer, Weaver repeated the question in the old German dialect the Amish speak among themselves. “Vir sind di eldra?” The young man seemed startled to hear Pennsylvania Dutch, as it’s called, coming from the mouth of this clean-shaven professional man wearing contemporary clothes. It obviously had never entered his head that a doctor could speak the language of the Amish–who are chiefly farmers and craftsmen, occasionally shopkeepers, but never professionals.

You can read the rest of the article here:

The second article was published in the Los Angeles Times on May 23, 2004

Two Worlds Fuse in Former Amish Pair

An Ohio couple who met after they left the community are valued for the knowledge they acquired by not being part of the church.

HOLMESVILLE, Ohio — When LaVina Miller Weaver chose to leave her Amish community at 17, it wasn’t a frivolous decision borne of teenage angst.

She desperately wanted to please her parents and stay true to her faith by marrying an Amish man and having seven or eight children. But she simply couldn’t ignore a tremendous desire to do something else with her life.

“I just went to them crying, ‘This is what I have to do,’ ” she said. “I wanted so much to have their blessing.”

Their reaction reflects the beliefs of a faith steeped in three centuries of tradition and teachings that admonish individuals to place community before themselves and preserve family values.

Her parents didn’t agree with her decision but respected her choice. An aunt was less understanding, refusing to eat at the same table with her.


Weaver and her husband, a doctor who also left the Amish church, offer a unique perspective as former members of the faith who are valued, paradoxically, for the worldly knowledge that they could not have gained if they were still part of the church.


“I’m sort of in a bit of awe that I returned to work with my own people in a capacity I never could have before I left,” said Weaver, 52.

She recalled the rigors of college classes and the aloofness of the students being a challenge, but said her first chemistry test brought her to tears — when it came back with an “A.”

“I couldn’t believe that I could do this,” she said. “From that time on, I became a bit of an academic… The world opened up to me.”

Read the rest of the story here.

If you enjoy the inspiration of these stories and would like to help young people find their academic path, please consider donating to the Amish Descendent Scholarship Fund. Your donations will go directly into providing Amish descendents to chart their path to formal education.

Thank you kindly for your support.

Saloma Furlong

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Rescued By an Amish Grandmother, Part 2

Last week I posted the first part of Freeman Kinsinger’s story, which I am continuing today. Also, for the personal connection I had with Freeman’s grandmother, see my post Memory Photos on my personal blog.

Here is more of Freeman’s story.

After my twenty-first birthday, I enrolled as a freshman at Eastern Mennonite College.  My career goal was to become a Certified Public Accountant.  However, the business program at EMC did not meet the educational requirements for becoming a CPA.  I needed to find a qualified business school to achieve my goal.  Meanwhile, after completing my freshman year and marrying Retha Schlabach, my education was put on hold.  I was drafted and completed my two-year I-W assignment in voluntary service as the Accountant for Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pennsylvania.  MCC is a relief, development, and peace organization that sends workers to over 60 foreign countries.  Meeting the accounting challenges at MCC was an affirmation of my career choice.

In the fall of 1964, I enrolled at the University of Buffalo, later renamed the State University of New York at Buffalo, to resume my educational and career goals.  Retha worked at SUNY at Buffalo to pay for my education.

Freeman's 1968 College Graduation

Freeman Kinsinger:
Graduation from University of Buffalo

Upon graduation in 1968 with a B.S. in Business Administration, I was employed by Arthur Anderson & Co., a world-wide CPA firm, and assigned to the Rochester, New York, office.  New York State requires two years of audit experience before one is qualified to take the three-day CPA exam.  I was licensed as a practicing CPA in 1970.  My audit work involved reviewing internal controls for audit clients; in a related move, I also completed the exam to become a Certified Fraud Examiner.  After my graduation, Retha completed her B.A. in English from SUNY at Brockport and worked as an editor with General Code Publishers, a codifier and publisher of municipal codes.

We moved to Pleasant Plains, Illinois, in 1977 to start my second career.  I was initially hired by Central Illinois Public Service Company in Springfield, an electric and gas utility serving central and southern Illinois, to establish an Internal Audit Department.  Later that year, I was elected as a financial officer of the company.  As a part of the CIPS Executive Team, I was privileged to complete the two-year Executive M.B.A. Program at the University of Illinois, all expenses paid, while working full-time.  It was an excellent opportunity to achieve a graduate degree.  After 21 years, I retired as Controller in 1998.

We adopted two children, Philip Jon in 1978, and Emily Jane in 1982.  Retha became a stay-at-home mom for the next 20 years.  She currently works in the Research Department of the Fourth District Appellate Court of Illinois.

After my retirement from CIPS, I was a substitute teacher in the Pleasant Plains Schools for several years.  Currently, I am a bus driver for the Pleasant Plains school district.  I was instrumental in organizing the Pleasant Plains Educational Support Personnel Association into an approved union affiliated with the IEA-NEA. As its initial president, I negotiated its first collective bargaining agreement with the school district.

I volunteered much of my free time to charitable and social organizations and to the church.  I served seven years on the Board of Family Service Center of Sangamon County, Illinois, several as Vice President and Treasurer.  I also served on the Boards of the YMCA and the United Way.

I was a deacon and Elder at West Side Christian Church, in Springfield, Illinois, serving numerous years as Trustee and Chairman during the construction of its new school and worship facility.  I have been a leader and teacher in various small groups at West Side.

I love the outdoors, especially bonfires after dark in the woods with our family and friends.  My favorite music is classical and jazz.  Retha and I love to travel.  We have taken trips to all the lower 48 states, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Africa.

Freeman's Amish Grandmother (1977)

Freeman’s Amish Grandmother in 1977

God has blessed us in many ways.  I appreciate my Christian heritage, especially the influence of my Amish grandmother.

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Rescued by an Amish Grandmother, Part 1

I would like to thank Emma Miller for her end-of-the year post. I understand why she is proud of starting the ADSFund. It speaks to her generous spirit that she would conceive of the idea at a bittersweet moment in her life — on the day of her own graduation.

I would like to second Emma’s thanks to those who have donated to the ADSFund, and encourage anyone who has been thinking of it to please help. When a person leaves the Amish and thinks about furthering their education, it can feel pretty daunting, especially because most of us experience money constraints. We like to lend support in whatever ways we can, and we depend on contributors to provide monetary support.

I have been gathering stories of people who have embarked on a journey to acquire more formal education. I have had the privilege of bringing you stories of Henry Troyer, Laura Miller Burress, and Emma Gingerich. If you haven’t already, please click over and read their stories.

Today I bring you a new story. This one is structured more as a biography than the other stories have been and it’s written by Freeman Kinsinger, who grew up in the same community as I did. In fact, his grandmother delivered me into the world… turns out I was one of many I believe I was close to the tail end of her years as a midwife. I had no idea until I talked with Freeman a few months ago, just what a wise woman she was. Without further ado, here is the first half of Freeman’s story.

FK 3

Freeman Kinsinger

I was born in 1939 and grew up in Geauga County in northeast Ohio. My parents were both raised Amish but were married in the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church.  My mother  was shunned all of her life because she left the Amish church.  My father, raised by his Amish uncle in Illinois, never joined the Amish church and was not shunned.  Although my parents were not Amish, all of my extended family, playmates, and friends were Amish.  I wore Amish clothes and spoke Pennsylvania Dutch because I wanted to be like my Amish cousins.  I attended the first eight grades in a public school along with all the other local Amish children.  There were no Amish schools at that time.  My parents told me that my formal education would end after the eighth grade.  All of our church members were former Amish families, and no one had ever gone beyond the eighth grade.  My parents planned for me to work as a hired hand on my Amish uncle’s farm, and all the money I earned would be given to my parents until I reached 21 years of age.  I soon realized that graduation from eighth grade was going to be a life-changing event for me.  I yearned to continue my education and no longer wanted to be identified with the Amish tradition of limiting formal education to only eight grades.  I was an insolent, insubordinate, and recalcitrant teenager for not wanting to honor my parent’s wishes.

Then suddenly an emancipator and liberator came to my rescue, my AMISH grandmother!  My mother’s mother was a strong and determined woman.  Grandma, who lived next door, spent her busy days delivering Amish babies in her home, preparing meals for her patients and their husbands, giving free medical advice to the Amish, sewing clothes for the Amish, gardening, and baking all kinds of goodies.  As a young married woman, mother of two and step-mother of three, she and Grandpa moved the family from Geauga County to Rio Hondo, Texas, to start a new Amish settlement.  After several years the settlement failed, so they sold all their belongings, bought a Model-T Ford which Grandma personally drove back to Ohio, and resettled the family in Geauga County.  Grandma teamed up with the local doctor and became a midwife for the Amish.  In her lifetime she assisted in over a thousand births in the surrounding Amish communities.  She never shunned my mother and stood her ground before the Bishop and the Amish church by threatening that her excommunication from the church would require the Amish to go to Cleveland hospitals to have their babies. Grandma (encouraged by the doctor) wanted me to have the formal education that she was never able to achieve for herself and her children.  She knew I was a straight-A student and a voracious reader.  She told the school librarian to suggest good books for me to read.  I smuggled library books home (hidden in my broadfall Amish pants) to hide under my mattress.  I read them in bed at night after my light should have been turned off.

During the summer after eighth grade, Grandma arranged for me to live and work on my Amish cousin’s farm about five miles from home.  I attended public high school for the next three years away from my parents’ objections and criticisms, while still giving them my earnings.  I dressed as an “English” or “Yankee” teenager and was well received and accepted by my non-Amish classmates.  High school classes were enlightening and stimulating, and they expanded my world view.  Grandma arranged and paid for my senior year at Eastern Mennonite High School in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I eagerly awaited Grandma’s letters and gift boxes of baked goodies.  Of course, the spending money she included in the letters was a real bonus.  Her high school graduation gift to me was a new 1957 Chevrolet.  My Amish Grandma inspired, supported, provided for, and encouraged me to pursue a higher education—all made possible by money she earned delivering Amish babies.

To be continued…

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Happy New Year!

As the first year of ADSF pulls to a close, we’d like to give a special thank you to all of you for your donations and words of encouragement. We know there are many other charitable needs in the world and we sincerely appreciate all of you who contributed to ADSF.

We created this fund because we believe everyone deserves an education and we know how daunting it can be to get a GED and start college on an 8th grade Amish education. As I look back on 2012, the fact that ADSF is in existence is what I’m most proud of. Now when you google “Amish Scholarships” as I did many times while I was a student, you will find us.

So here’s a quick recap for 2012: we were able to give away 2 $1000 scholarships this year to two very worthy students, Ruth and Marietta. It was such a joy to finally be able to help someone achieve their lifelong dream. We hope to give away 2 more $1000 scholarships later next year, so please encourage all your former Amish friends to apply when we start taking applications. If you know any former Amish that are interested in going to college but aren’t sure where to start, please send them our way.

We welcomed Saloma Furlong to the team and she is taking over the blog and helping us spread the word about ADSF. Thanks to all of you who have reached out and shared your stories of how you left the Amish and worked hard for your degree. It is so inspiring to read about your challenges and triumphs and I’m proud of you all! Thank you Saloma, for gathering these stories.

Naomi graduated from nursing school and just got engaged! Congratulations, Naomi! We wish you and Travis a life of happiness together.

In the coming year, we will be focused on raising more money for ADSF. We appreciate any help you can give. You can donate online or send a check and the money goes straight into the fund to ensure we can keep giving scholarships. If you have any suggestions for fundraisers or ideas on who might like to donate, please get in touch.

Wishing you all the best for 2013! Happy New Year!

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An Irrepressible Spirit

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.


Emma Gingerich in 2007, soon after leaving her Amish home and family

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.

IMG_0001The 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.

IMG (3)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.


Emma Gingerich

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My Dream of Being a Nurse

Today we have an education story from Laura Miller Burress, who grew up in an Amish community in rural South Central Kentucky.  As a little girl, while visiting her father in the hospital she developed an interest in nursing. Soon after her eighteenth birthday she left her Amish community and didn’t look back. While working at a factory she began taking classes at Western Kentucky University where she graduated with an Associate of Science Degree in Nursing in 2005, and with a Bachelors of Science in Nursing in 2007. She currently works as a Nurse Case Manager.  She lives with her husband in Kentucky.


Laura Miller Burress

I was born and raised Old Order Amish. At age six, while I was in the middle of first grade, my family moved from Delaware to Kentucky. We were the second family to move to the new community, so there was no established school. I was homeschooled for the last half of first grade but by fall there was a one room school up and going.

I completed 8th grade when I was fourteen. School was usually fun and always fairly easy for me. I studied a little, and did well overall. I read every book I could get my hands on, which was a limited number in school and at home. I remember picking up the dictionary and reading it because there were no books available that I had not read.

After being out of school for just one year, I was asked to teach at the same one room school where I was a student only two years earlier. I was excited to begin teaching. Now, when I think back, I have some mixed feelings about it. I know that I did the best I knew how at the time. The studies were not a problem; I felt confident in my ability to teach. But, it never felt right to discipline the students, and I tried to avoid it.

I see my time in the schoolhouse as the time when I became a responsible adult. In addition to the teaching, I was responsible for keeping the schoolhouse and yard clean, and during winter months keeping a fire in a dilapidated old woodstove that sometimes smoked us out. I was asked to teach another year. I did teach another year, but when I was asked to teach a third year, I chose not to.

Soon after I turned 18, I left home. Later, that same summer, I married my husband, Wally, who drove a semi-truck. I traveled with him for most of the first year we were married. Sometime during that year I also got my driver’s license, and a month after turning nineteen I earned my High School Equivalency Diploma.

After about a year of riding up and down the highways I was tired of traveling and ready to get a job. I applied for a factory job through a temporary agency and the following day started orientation for my first job. Three months later I was hired full time. Working at the factory was a good experience, but long before working there, my dream was to go to college and become a nurse. When I was ten years old my dad was diagnosed with cancer. During his illness he had several lengthy hospitalizations and when we visited him, I always noticed the nurses.  My father died of cancer when I was ten.

I wanted to be a nurse. I just wasn’t sure how to get there. Didn’t know where to start really, or what was involved.

While working at the factory I took the ACT test. Shortly thereafter I was accepted to Western Kentucky University. At the first appointment with my advisor, I could not bring myself to tell her I wanted to be a nurse. I never had a second choice, but I was not confident that I could complete nursing school, so I just told her I wanted to take some general education classes. I was still working full-time and would go to class after work two nights a week. I enrolled for 2 classes, English 101, and Human Nutrition. When I took these courses, I paid for them myself.

It’s hard to describe the emotions I had on my first night of class. I was scared, nervous, and excited all mixed together. Most of the time was spent going over the syllabus, which was good for me, because I had never heard of a syllabus.

I took evening classes for 2 semesters, and then the following summer, there were lots of changes within the factory including some jobs going to Mexico. There was a voluntary lay-off; so I took a small severance pay, unemployment benefits and enrolled in full-time classes. I qualified for tuition reimbursement that was paid for by the , which was based on making a passing grade. This program paid for most of my tuition for 2 of the 3 years that I was enrolled full-time in the ADN program. I paid for the books. I still had to fill out the FASFA. I did not qualify for any grants, but took out loans for my final year in the ADN. One of my nursing instructors recommended me for a $500 nursing scholarship, and I got it.

The following year I was accepted into WKU’s Associate of Science in nursing program. I never skipped class. The assignments seemed endless. Almost everything was new, and I was like a sponge soaking it all up. There were moments when I thought I was in over my head and wouldn’t make it, but it never occurred to me to give up. Once, at the very beginning of a psychology class, the instructor asked that we write down the names of the seven dwarves. Luckily we were not graded on this. It was an exercise to see how many people remembered all the names correctly. I didn’t know any of the dwarves names because I had never watched Snow White. Similar things happened from time to time, and I had feelings of inadequacy. I know now that I may never fully catch up, on things like movies and music genres. Still, I am a productive adult and competent nurse. I graduated with Distinction in May 2005, seven years to the date that I had left the Amish.


Graduation Day

Within a few months I passed the State Board exam and began working as a Registered Nurse at the hospital where my dad had his surgeries — I worked on the same floor and rooms where I visited him as a little girl. I met a few nurses who remembered him. While working there, I got a PRN job offer at the office of three Orthopedic Surgeons. On days I was not at the hospital I would work at the office. Right after graduating, I also enrolled in classes for the post RN -BSN program at WKU. I had completed some hours towards this while in the ADN program. Later that year, I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Science in Nursing.

By summer of 2007, I was ready for a change from the hospital and took a full-time position at the Orthopedic Office.

In 2008 I applied and was accepted to a graduate program in the nurse practitioner track at WKU. I did 3 semesters part-time, but my heart wasn’t in it so I decided to take a break from school. I may eventually go back, but for now I am content. Two years ago I am began working as a Nurse Case Manager. I coordinate medical care for people who are injured at work. I have a home office, and travel throughout Kentucky and Tennessee to meet injured workers. I recently studied for and passed the Commission for Certified Case Managers exam.

As is the experience with most who leave the Amish, the relationship with my family was strained in the beginning. Over the years though, this has greatly improved. I enjoy visiting and spending time with them as often as I can. My husband and I celebrated our fourteenth anniversary this year. I am so grateful that he believed in me, and my dream to be a nurse, before I believed in myself. We live on a mini-farm with 2 horses, 1 very old pet cow, 2 dogs and 2 barn cats. We enjoy traveling. And I still enjoy reading.


Laura with her husband, Wally

Many thanks to Emma, William, and Naomi for all your efforts in getting ADSFUND going and Thank You Saloma for inviting me to share my story.

Laura Burress

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From a Farm Boy to the Outer Limits of a University Education, Part II

Continued from previous post:

After a few years, I came across an advertisement in a magazine for a high school correspondence course, offered by American School in Chicago.  I secretly enrolled – secretly, because I knew that my parents would not approve.

I took some courses, including algebra, biology, psychology, and English.  I completed the equivalent of about one and one-half years of high school.  I do not recall how I paid the fees for the course; I did not have much money of my own at that time.

My parents pressured me to join church when I was 19, but I was never in good standing with the church.  I simply did not make a very good Amishman. I bought a car and let another Amish boy drive it and pretend it was his.  It soon became known that I owned the car, and I was put out of the church. This was during the time we had a military draft, and I had to somehow satisfy my draft obligation.  So when I was 21 years old, I began my I-W service at University Hospitals in Cleveland.  I was no longer shunned although my relationship with my parents continued to be strained.  I used to visit home about once a month.  I worked my obligatory two years at the hospital and then stayed an extra year to save up some money for college.

I worked on a medical floor at the hospital, doing patient care.  One patient I cared for was a middle-aged man with multiple sclerosis.  He and I hit it off very well, and he got me interested in going to a drafting school called the Cleveland Engineering Institute.  I applied and was accepted.  I took several mathematics and engineering courses, including trigonometry, advanced algebra, metallurgy, material science, and machine design.  I loved every one of those courses.  The instructors were engineers and scientists who taught these courses in their spare time in the evenings, and they were all excellent teachers.

Attending that school served to give me a great deal of confidence. It was the only formal schooling I had between eighth grade (age 14) and the time I began at Goshen College (age 24) as a freshman.

Going to Goshen College upset my parents very much. My relations with them was so strained that I just didn’t go home again.  That was a VERY difficult time.  During holidays, all the other students went home to their families, but I had no family to go to.  I was usually allowed to stay on campus, but it was so lonely.  I became very depressed during those times.  And there was nothing to do about it but just tough it out.

A year after I graduated from Goshen, my relationship with my parents was reconciled.  They were so pleased when I married Elsie, because they had known her mother, and thought very highly of her.

My academic studies at Goshen College did not seem particularly difficult, although I thought the amount of work was somewhat staggering. Almost without exception, I enjoyed my courses and acquiring bodies of knowledge.  I was beginning to see the “big picture” which gave me great satisfaction.

I developed a great deal of respect for all my professors with one or two exceptions.  Perhaps I was somewhat surprised that my professors at Goshen College were as accessible and helpful on a personable level as they were.  I still carried a considerable amount “Amish baggage” and insecurity.

I once had an extended conversation with one of my professors during which he told me, in a perfectly well meaning comment, that he felt I was not graduate school material.  I did not take offense from that comment because I had great respect for him and the course I took from him was a wonderful course (Sociology of Religion).  I did not take offense, but perhaps something did get stirred up deep within me somewhere – something that said, “I think I can prove you wrong!”  And I did.

After graduating from Goshen, I got into graduate school at West Virginia University (WVU). At the Department of Anatomy of WVU, we graduate students used to have informal sessions where anything and everything was discussed, including some things that really should not leave the room!  During some of those discussions, I gained an even greater appreciation for my education at Goshen College because some of the other students did not have a rich undergraduate experience like I did.

After graduating from West Virginia University (Ph.D. Human Anatomy) I taught at four American universities, two African universities, and at Dhamtari Christian Medical Center in India.  I also studied epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Kansas and at Johns Hopkins University.  I taught those subjects in India and did research in those areas at the University of Kentucky.

The Amish elders would have us believe that too much education would be harmful to your faith.  They teach that studying too much science might lead you to question the validity of the Bible and that subjecting a spiritual experience to psychological analysis could render the experience meaningless.  I can honestly say, however, that my faith was strengthened along with my education, and I really cherish my knowledge of the Bible.  I also enjoy an excellent relationship with my Amish relatives and the Amish community.

Now when I take a moment to look back to see where I came from, it seems like I’ve taken an incredible journey.  I started out an Amish farm boy, where knowledge was not valued beyond what one would need to run a farm or to be a builder.  From there I went toward the outer limits of a university’s body of knowledge by being involved in medical research.  Was such a journey really possible?  I guess it was because there I was and now here I am!


Henry and Elsie Troyer

I took early retirement for medical reasons.  That was thirteen years ago.  Elsie and I live near Springfield, Missouri, where we have a daughter and grandchildren. We do hobby farming, raising goats and chickens. We have a huge garden and take produce to the farmers’ market in the city.  I also build yard carts, old-fashioned wooden wheelbarrows, half-size farm wagons, and power-generating windmills.  I use scrap lumber almost exclusively and rarely buy lumber.  I’ve gone green!  I have not forgotten the many skills I learned as an Amish farm boy.

Do chickens come home to roost at night?

GoatAntics 009

Henry feeding his goats (or pigs — he’s not sure which at feeding time.)

This concludes the story of Henry Troyer’s educational journey. We will be featuring more education stories from people who have left the Amish and gone on to acquire more formal education. Look for them every two weeks on a Sunday afternoon.

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From a Farm Boy to the Outer Limits of a University Education, Part I

Today we have a story from Henry Troyer who left the Amish in 1958 in pursuit of more education. For his full bio visit About Amish.  His story will be posted in two parts.

Henry Portrait.jpeg

At an early age, I longed for knowledge. I read everything I could get my hands on, which in our Amish home was not very much. I attended a one-room country school, named Brush Run, in Holmes County, Ohio. Our teachers were always outsiders; that is, they were non-Amish, non-Mennonite teachers. During most of my nine years at Brush Run School, all the students were from Amish families except the children of a Mennonite family.  Later, five of the Amish families joined the Mennonite Church.  All their children continued to attend Brush Run School, and the mix of students was no longer so predominantly Amish.

I became familiar with just about every book in that school.  The “library” consisted of several shelves of books along the back wall of the building.  Among the books was an old set of World Book of Knowledge, published in 1929.  From it, I learned about the eight planets of the solar system.  Yes, eight because Pluto had not yet been discovered.  I learned about the four moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and the canals of Mars.  That was our understanding of the solar system at that time.

During the four months of summer vacation, I longed for access to those books.  Yet, the schoolhouse was locked up all summer.  However, I learned that one of the windows could not be locked, and I could enter whenever I wanted to.  No one else seemed to know about the unlocked window, or perhaps they simply did not care. I did not often “break” into the schoolhouse during the summer to get to the books, but when I did, I tried to do so discretely so that no one else knew.  Yet, the word got around that I had a way of getting into the schoolhouse, and it earned me something of a reputation – in today’s lingo I would have been a nerd.

I finished grade eight at the age of 14. I would have to stay at home and work on the farm for the next six or seven years, a prospect that I did not cherish.  A year later, the State of Ohio would require children to be in school until age 16.  The county to the east already had the school-to-age-16 requirement.  The Amish families in that county were taken by surprise and were unprepared, so the Amish children who passed grade eight had no choice but to attend high school for a few years until the Amish got a satisfactory compromise worked out.  Some of the children (early teenagers) were my friends, and when I would hear about their high school experiences, I would get very envious.

During that era, every child in Ohio was required to pass an exam in order to successfully pass the eighth grade.  I took that exam and made a score of 131, the highest score ever made at Brush Run School. I only held that record for one year, however, for the very next year Aden Troyer, a distant relative and a close personal friend, scored 132 points on the same exam.

After finishing studies at Brush Run School at age of 14, I worked on the farm and had little additional formal education experience for a number of years.  I secretly longed for the opportunity to attend high school or some other school experience.  However, it would have been very improper for me to openly express such a desire.  It would have earned me ostracism from my parents and other people in the community.

To be continued…

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From a One-Room Amish Schoolhouse to Smith College

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.

Meadow Glow School

Little red schoolhouse where I attended school for five years.

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.


On Graduation Day: I knew which “cap” I was wearing on that day!
(The other was a reminder from whence I’d come.)

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.

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