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How I Earned My ‘PHD’ as a Wise Woman

A personal essay from a ‘Wish of a Lifetime’ recipient

a pen on a journal with glasses

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Editor’s note: Odie Pahl, 69, of Wadsworth, Illinois, is the recipient of a Wish of a Lifetime award from AARP. Her wish was to write a personal essay for publication. She has been a board member for the Gurnee (Illinois) School District 56 for nine years, is president of the special education district of Lake County, Illinois, and is a member of the state’s School Board Association. The following is her submission.

Yes, it sounds like I am a little full of myself with this headline. The letters I use with my name are not grammatically correct, nor do they represent an actual doctorate in anything. However, if you read further, I hope to explain where I am going with all of that.​

The dictionary defines “wise” as “having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment or discernment.” That does not mean a wise person has a degree, and so far it describes me well. I am a lifelong learner and a social observer, and I have had the experience of many, many decades on this planet. “Wise Woman” is not just hype or a delusion of grandeur. ​

odie pahl

Courtesy Odie Pahl

My PHD is earned by a lifetime of studying people through experience, learning, and discerning life’s situations. Please do not think I have made only wise decisions, or even smart ones. Through the test of time, I have garnered, by word and deed, a sense of insight and understanding. Our human foibles are very real, and we need to work through those flaws and weaknesses and not just let them ride or cover them up. I want to be part of those solutions.​

Instead of the usual meaning of Ph.D., my PHD stands for personal human discernment. I could never continue my education to the doctorate level. I do not have the financial means or time to earn it. I am still paying off student loans from my bachelor’s degree and some parent loans. I am not famous or wealthy enough to receive an honorary degree. I could not give a speech in front of graduates without having a nervous breakdown.​​

My gift is the written word, and I am so grateful for this blessing in my life. I listen to and watch people. I try to understand motivations and the defense mechanisms we use to get through the day. Then, with my writing, I share what I have learned in a relatable way. I hope to bring us together instead of pushing us apart.​​

Recognizing what people have to offer and not what they have accomplished is far more important in today’s world. Finder.com, a financial services comparison site, reports that when it asked college graduates in early 2021 if they were using their degree, 40.4 percent said no. Almost 29 percent said they couldn’t find a job in their field. This data does not differentiate between those who earned good grades or attended great higher educational institutions.

So why do we, as a society, insist on treating people worse when they apply for a job without a degree? Maybe instead we should have tests that include real questions to discern what people know and how skilled they are. Sure, some professions need to have standards and accreditations to prove practitioners have been trained sufficiently. But this does not prove they are good at being a doctor, lawyer, teacher or therapist. They may have the knowledge, but not necessarily the experience or judgment.​​


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I raised two daughters. Both have master’s degrees (they paid for those themselves), and both became teachers. I worked in education for 20 years, and I saw how children learn and grow. During that time, I could see who loved education and who did not. The students who struggled then are not necessarily the ones who are hurting now. It is amazing how finding their passion or talents did not include college. Other students who were on a college track are now feeling lost or uninspired.​​

This Wise Woman is saying: Let’s cut people some slack when it comes to our expectations. It took me almost 30 years to finish my degree, one class at a time, between working, my daughters’ needs and then my grandchildren. It became a race to see if I would retire or graduate first. I received the degree first, though it did not help me in my later endeavors.​​

My job experiences, classes, workshops and volunteer work have enriched me tremendously. I know so much, I have experienced many situations, and I understand plenty. None of that was without effort. I have become a Wise Woman. My age does not determine who I am or what I can do.​