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About the American Dream: Learning to Learn

Home ownership has always been the traditional American dream, dating back to the early settlers whose first actions were to form a community and build shelter. Creating space where they were free to pursue their own endeavors fueled westward and immigration movements. Although I cherish the home that I own, my American dream is different. My dream was instilled by my Kansas-born grandmother.

Opal Nellie Wolff left home when she was 16 to become a dancer in New York. Widowed in her 20s with a young child to support, she established a dance studio in Oregon, weathered the Depression and war, and fought poverty much of her life.

She entertained me with stories of her life in New York, but always ended them with a caution. “The one thing I regret,” she said, “is that I did not get my education. There is so much to know in life. Promise me that no matter what you do, you will get your education.” I grew up in the shadow of Stanford University and attended school with children whose parents were professors and founders of tech companies. It was assumed that they would go to college, but no one had that expectation of me—except Nana. When I told my father I planned to go to college, he said, “That will ruin you for being a wife and a mother.” Then he got me a summer job in his office and helped me open a savings account. If I were going to college, I would need to pay for it on my own.

Two things made my days at the University of California, Berkeley, valuable. I realized that I was buying a degree, so I had to make the most of my time, but the thrill was getting an education. I didn’t know what I would do with my education, but that didn’t matter.

In college, you learn how to learn. Lifelong learning helps you build on experience, figure things out for yourself and appreciate every stage of life. I have used everything I learned—in my career in communications, in my multiple roles as wife, mother, volunteer and grandmother.

The American part of this dream is that, despite dire headlines, education is available to all. A house can be repossessed, but no one can take away your education. Nana told me that.

Sydney Avey is a reader from Groveland, Calif.

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