Opinion & Editorial

One Woman’s Experience Pursuing Higher Education Later In Life

Pursuing Higher Education

Recent School of Continuing & Professional Studies (formerly University College) graduate, Marina Allen, went from high school straight to the work force, and discovered her passion for sustainability in a degree program years later. Learn more about her journey and inspiration along the way.

Marina Allen has worked in accounts payable for the St. Louis City Family Court’s juvenile division for 20 years, and will graduate this summer with a degree in sustainability at Washington University in St. Louis.

After high school, Allen worked at a bakery in the tiny town of Bunker Hill, Illinois, where she grew up. She then moved on to a faxing job at St. Louis law firm Bryan Cave, which led to her position at the St. Louis City Family Court. Instead of immediately pursuing a degree program out of high school, she chose to wait, and has rediscovered a love of learning, along with her passion for sustainability.

Keep reading to learn more about her journey and inspiration.

How did you become interested in sustainability?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished high school, and I knew I didn’t want to waste my time in a degree program if I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a friend suggest taking some classes that interested me, so I started taking community college classes. I found myself becoming more concerned about sustainability issues, and eventually I started a battery-recycling program at Meramec. I began looking for opportunities to transfer to a different school, and I saw that Washington University in St. Louis had a sustainability program. When I started at WashU, they had three different majors in sustainability.

I knew I was concerned about recycling, but I also recognized that moves towards sustainability—like wind and solar power—were really making a change, especially from burning coal. I felt it would be a really good opportunity for me to explore another career path once I graduated. I’ve been at my current job at the St. Louis City Family Court, where I do accounting work, for 20 years. I like it, and I’ve been moving up the ladder ever since I started, but the subject matter was never really something I was passionate about. Now that I’ve finally embarked on a degree path, it is in something that interests me.

Take me through your journey.

After high school, I started working at the local grocery store in the town where I lived, decorating cakes and working in the bakery. I grew up in a small town called Bunker Hill, where there wasn’t a whole lot of economic opportunity. It’s about 15 miles north of Edwardsville, Illinois.

One of my friends, who also lived in Bunker Hill, worked at the Bryan Cave law firm in St. Louis, about an hour drive. She told me there was another opening, so I got a job there. My responsibility was to send and receive faxes, which I did all day. We all carpooled together. I worked there for six years and had really outgrown what I was doing. I knew that I needed something more. Then I saw an ad in the newspaper for this job at the court and transferred here.

I started out doing the same general office duties that I did at Bryan Cave, but outgrew that and started doing accounts payable. Now, I do accounting for all of the grants that the juvenile courts receive. Some grants involve placing children in homes or temporary custody, and some are for supporting kids who break into someone’s car and they do community service to pay the restitution, or something like that. Federal, state and private grants to help cover the costs. I’ve been here now for 20 years.

You’ve talked about refusing to go to school just for the sake of going to school. Once you spent time in the workforce, what led you back to explore higher education?

It’s true that I definitely didn’t want to go to school just for the sake of going to school. But it really started with just taking some classes that interested me, just to learn and get more education. And once I started taking different classes, what I really discovered was a love of learning within myself. Every time I took a class it was like, “Oh my gosh!” Every time I would learn something new, I also learned that there was so much more that I didn’t know. It lit a fire in me. I could take things in more depth by pursuing my degree. I also noticed how much the different subjects are all interconnected. I took a philosophy class and a sociology class, and you really see how sociology intertwines with politics, for example, and things like that. It’s really interesting.

Especially working at the law firm, I noticed the social and class differences between someone who makes minimum wage with no degree, and someone who has a degree. I knew that I was smart and could do other things—not just jobs that don’t require a degree. I could feel that time was passing, and I could either be closer to getting a degree, or stay where I was and not go any further. But time’s going to be passing one way or another. A lot of it was really for myself, because I felt bad, or less than, because I didn’t have a degree. That’s how it started, but it changed. Once I started taking different classes, I knew I wanted to learn more and do more, and be more. I also knew that I could do more with my time to help my community on a small level and ultimately help the world by pursuing the degree in sustainability.

What was your experience at WashU like?

I can’t speak enough about the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (formerly University College) and Washington University, in general. I love it so much. I was really intimidated, originally, coming from a small town with a population of 1,700. It was a transition to go from a tiny community to working in St. Louis for a big company. But then I discovered that the company is really a small community. And when I first started community college, I thought, “I’m going to get lost.” But after the first year or so, it didn’t feel quite so big, and I discovered it was a community. Then when I transferred to WashU, I was like, “Now this is a huge campus. I’m going to get lost.” And lo and behold, that great, big, intimidating campus became that small, community feeling that I was used to. The administrators and professors at WashU were so welcoming. I was able to get to know people. When I started to get scared, my advisor would tell me, “You’re going to be fine.”

I was able to get some scholarships as well to help me pay for my education, and people would tell me how I lucky I was. Oprah has said this before, but I also believe that luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity. So by taking this time that’s been passing to get my degree, I was preparing myself for opportunities that would come up. With my degree, I’m now prepared with this piece of paper that so many employers require now. And in that preparation is where you also encounter a lot of the opportunities that are out there. For instance, in one of my classes I took this semester, the teacher is the Sustainability Director for the City of St. Louis, Catherine Werner.

It showed me that St. Louis has a sustainability plan and a sustainability director, and that’s in my network for when I decide to change my career. I have people I know that I’ve worked with who can help me. The issue I work with the most is recycling, and in my research I knew I wanted to do something to help my community. At the St. Louis City juvenile court, I asked myself, “Why doesn’t our building recycle?” I didn’t give up on it, and now our building has recycling. I also planted a milkweed garden at Innovative Concept Academy and a monarch garden at the St. Louis City Family Court. It helps me feel good about helping my community. That’s how I discovered what I’m passionate about.

What obstacles stood between you and your goals, and how did you move through them?

I’m still working at it where I am. But once I finish my degree, then I have the Washington University name, and that’s going to help me work on these issues on a larger scale. I never felt like I had to wait to get my degree to pursue sustainability issues. I was doing it the whole time. But getting my degree from WashU has helped me to be a more impactful advocate.

I also felt uncertain about how it would all work—the timing, how to pay for it, etc. When I transferred to WashU from Meramec, I kept thinking, “I’m never going to make it there.” And then that’s where I ended up, and it worked out. I graduate this summer. In transferring, thinking I’m never going to make it there, and lo and behold, I ended up there. Walking around campus you think, “Wow, this looks like a castle.” It reminded me of Harry Potter. To me, I have always felt like the school is going to help the students who want and need the help.

Note: this post was originally published with Alive Magazine.