Masters of their graduate dreams

St. John's confers degrees on adults who returned to the college challenge

August 12, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

Paul Snaith had logged 18 years at the World Bank but had started feeling as if he should know more -- more about the roots of Western civilization, more about the origins of modern-day customs and philosophies.

So, he went back to school. By day, the Arlington, Va., resident worked in a World Bank department that managed billion-dollar international loans. By night, he read Plato and Immanuel Kant and analyzed the Pythagorean theorem at St. John's College in Annapolis.

On Friday, he was among 20 people to graduate with master's degrees from the small liberal arts school, which offers a four-semester master's curriculum customized for working adults who long to pick up something they missed in their undergraduate training.

"Sometimes, I felt like I wasn't truly educated, felt like there were so many things I did not know. And after taking these seminars, I realize I knew even less than I thought I did," the 49-year-old said.

St. John's master's program, which began as a summer institute for teachers, broadened in 1986 to include all working professionals.

Now, more than two decades later, the program attracts a diverse crew. Some of this summer's graduates, whose ages ranged from 24 to 58, rushed to classes after putting in full days as real estate agents, Montessori school teachers, congressional staffers and corporate salespeople. They came from 11 states -- three of them from Maryland and others as far away as the state of Washington.

Standing in the Great Hall where underclassmen hold swing dances and waltzes, the ceremony's keynote speaker, longtime tutor Peter Kalkavage, commended the graduates for the courage to return to school, especially one like St. John's, where students read and analyze some of the Western World's toughest works.

"With more life experience than our undergraduates, more settled opinions, and a more formed character, you dared to make a new beginning. You were willing to be, for a time, unsettled adults, courageous enough to know that you did not know. As you questioned the books, you also let them question you," said Kalkavage.

Kalkavage continued: "You read hard books, asked hard questions and submitted to perplexity. The journey at times was not easy. Some of you had to make personal sacrifices that our undergraduates do not have to make: time away from jobs and family, the interruption of established life. But you persisted, and you are here."

Kalkavage's words rang true for graduates like Snaith. The commencement was the realization of a dream he had deferred for 15 years.

With his children older now, he said, he thought "it was now or never" to seize the opportunity at St. John's. When he finally committed to start classes last summer, Snaith said he canceled all his newspaper and magazine subscriptions so there was only time to pore through Aristotle and Herodotus, and he braced himself for the hourlong, rush-hour commute from his Northwest Washington office to Annapolis twice a week. He did not see much of his family, and used up vacation time he had squirreled away at work over the years. In the end, he said, it was all worth it.

"It was incredibly valuable, and I'm happy to have done it," he said, adjusting the tassel on his graduation cap. "People were so supportive here."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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