John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Happy Anniversary to My Adult Self

Today as I write this blog, January 10, 2010, I reflect, that this was the first day of the rest of my life that really matters, back on January 10, 1967. Forty-three years ago tonight I “cleared” in to my new base in the US Air Force, Shaw AFB, South Carolina. I had arrived at a place I had great hesitation about coming to, a base in the “Deep South” which I thought would be like a foreign country from my vantage point as a young, white, “Yankee,” liberal, arriving about two years after the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. But if I hadn’t come to South Carolina that night, I never would have discovered my true vocation.

How do our students “discover their true vocations”? Mine was largely due to circumstances beyond my control. But I had taken maximum advantage of opportunities I had been previously offered to some day be able to take maximum advantage of circumstances beyond my control. That’s what we have to prepare our students to be able to do.

In my case, I had been the recipient of a fine liberal arts education at a small liberal arts college (Marietta). Then, to escape the draft, I decided to go to graduate school. But I was drafted in grad school anyway, and hastily finished an MA in American Studies before being voluntarily inducted into the US Air Force. Because I had that liberal arts masters degree, the Air Force had to give me special consideration for a duty assignment. And they needed psychiatric social workers due to the Vietnam War buildup and I became one.

After being sent to my permanent duty assignment in SC, and on base less than 24 hours, my squadron commander called me in and told me that he had been reviewing my record and had discovered that I had more education than anyone in my squadron except the physicians. In turn, that made him give me a direct order to become a college teacher in the University of South Carolina Extension Division.

I explained to my commander that I was not a college teacher and had no teaching experience anywhere. He said that was alright and that the Air Force believed in having people like me “volunteer” to perform “public service.”

I was 22 years old. No one had ever asked me to “volunteer” before, let alone perform a “public service.”

So two days later, on Saturday, January 13, 1967, I had appointments with multiple personnel at the University of South Carolina in nearby Columbia, which my commander had the Base Education Office arrange for me. To my amazement, I was approved to teach five different courses on an adjunct basis, four in history and one in sociology.

Two weeks later I started my first college teaching, at a small, rural, open admissions regional campus of USC in a similarly small, rural textile town, Lancaster, S.C. Initially, I was very nervous. I taught on a Friday night and was so nervous I couldn’t eat before class. I looked and was younger than many of my students, and had no hair. After about six weeks I noticed my nervousness subsiding and then disappearing altogether.

And I realized that I was looking forward to teaching that class more than anything else I could even imagine doing. Why? Because college teaching, I had discovered, gave me the opportunity to do the four things I loved most to do, and be paid an honest wage for doing honest work. What four things? Talking, reading, writing, and helping people.

And that’s what I do today, all thanks to the US Air Force, and not the career planning I should have had in college but didn’t because it wasn’t provided by any college at that time. Colleges didn’t believe that that was something they needed to provide for students! We have come a long way baby. Happy Anniversary adult John.

-John Gardner

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