One central issue in Labor Economics is that of human capital investment, or how people choose education or training in order to prepare themselves for jobs they desire. I found myself thinking of this recently as I recall a member of my graduate school program.
The first day of graduate school brought together thirty students. Amidst the sea of blue denim and college t-shirts was one woman who stood out, wearing a conservative black dress with a black veil surrounding her smiling face. She seemed happy and excited to delve into whatever challenges the next few years would bring. A cross around her neck made it clear that her attire was due to her membership into a religious community. We soon learned that the name of that community was the “Sisters of Notre Dame,” and her community was based in Ohio, not far outside of Cleveland.
While many of the entering students came from college experiences that emphasized Math, she had been taking classes over the summer to help her learn some of the Calculus that her academic background, in History, had missed. Recently, the president of the college where she taught decided that all of the faculty should possess doctorates. With several options open to her, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Economics, and chose to live with a community of sisters who lived only miles from the campus we attended. While most of us hopped into our cars to drive home each night, she patiently waited for the public transit to take her back to her dorm. In the harsh Boston weather, she always wore warm ear muffs over her veil. They were, of course, black.
It was clear that she was determined to finish the degree awarded by the program she had just entered, even as many of the rest of us sometimes dreamed about the fact that those who left before earning a Ph.D. often found jobs that earned more money than would be earned by finishing. When we struggled with work and muttered to ourselves “why am I here?” we realized that she knew exactly why she was here; she had been told to do this, and so she was. One classmate commented that “God told her to do this.”
Before her order gave up wearing the traditional habit, she was never seen in anything other than her black dress and veil. She made a joke of this by buying note pads and stickers shaped like penguins. Someone commented that “she loves penguins and she dresses like one.” I actually think the order was the reverse; she loved penguins BECAUSE she dressed like one!
When my job started in Cleveland, and it was time for her to return to her home college, she and I road tripped to Ohio together, stopping for a night at a convent along the way. After I moved into my apartment, she invited me to an art fair in the final days of August. As I wandered around the booths, I realized that the head band I was wearing was much too tight. As she later pointed out, the head band was fine. It was the head that had the problem.
When, a few days later, I learned that I had a brain tumor, she offered me a safe place to stay as I started taking a medicine I had never taken before. And when I spent seven weeks in the hospital, she was there as support, inviting my parents to meals with her community. Later, she provided my parents with a link to eyes and ears, miles away, that cared about (a recovering) me. Years later, she was one of over one hundred people who helped us celebrate my daughter’s baptism. This weekend, she herself celebrates her fiftieth year of service as a Sister of Notre Dame.
Oh, and that Ph.D. program she entered, without the Calculus background that most of us had? She finished her dissertation in perhaps the most difficult sub-field and under perhaps the most feared advisor.
And so, as you celebrate this weekend, here’s to you, Beth Ann Tercek, Ph.D., Sister of Notre Dame Extraordinaire!
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