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From Junkyard to PhD: Educated by Tara Westover

March 18, 2019

At age 17, Tara Westover found herself at a crossroads: without a formal education she faced an uphill battle if she wanted a life beyond her father's junkyard.

 

In her memoir, Educated, readers learn that Westover was born into a devout Mormon family led by a patriarch who viewed government-mandated education and healthcare with fanatical skepticism. Raised on a remote mountainside in Idaho with her 7 siblings, Westover would never step into a proper classroom as a child. Miraculously, she finds the drive and determination to transform her curiosity about the world into, first, an acceptance into Brigham Young University (BYU), and then a doctorate in intellectual history from Cambridge University. 

 

What I found most important about Westover's story was the way in which people intervened and assisted her along the way. Whenever I discuss this book with someone else who has read it, they often stress their admiration for Westover's determination to learn. They are absolutely right. Had she not overcome that inner voice telling her she wasn't good enough - a voice given to her by her eldest brother Sean in more ways than one - she would still be in Idaho working her father's junkyard. However, I also find it important to stress the role other people can have in helping students succeed.

 

Starting with her older brother Tyler, one of three Westovers, including Tara, who pursued and obtained a doctoral degree. Tyler made a point of stressing to Tara that she study and take the ACT. Once she was accepted into BYU and struggled to acclimate socially and academically, there was a history professor who saw the aptitude Westover had for examining history and pushed her to apply to a program at Cambridge. Once she arrived to Cambridge, the professor she was paired with valued her voice so much he refused to let her not pursue a graduate degree.

 

I think people might be hesitant to acknowledge the assistance of men in Westover's life because it might minimize her achievements. I disagree. There are many women across the globe who share Westover's brilliance but who do not encounter the right people the way Westover did, or who do not have siblings willing to push them to pursue an education from the start. There are many near misses Westover encountered that end the academic journey of many great minds: entering as a freshman and being unprepared for the academic rigor that college courses require, not knowing who to ask for help, the threat of losing scholarship money, not being able to buy food. These were all situations that weighed heavily on the mind of Westover as a student and as you read (or listen) to her story, you see how much they affect her ability to focus on her classes. These and many other factors weigh on the minds of first generation college students and affect their likelihood to succeed. Combine all of these factors and then add in the fact that Tara had never used a blue book for a test and had never heard of the Holocaust, and her story is truly extraordinary

 

 

With that being said, not everyone listens to the encouragement of others the way that Westover did. Although she dragged her feet and fought to accept her brilliance, she eventually applied to the Cambridge program and, once there, discovered and cultivated her talent for historical research and analysis. I absolutely admire her drive and determination and eventual willingness to accept help and encouragement from her professors and mentors. I think this part of her story is important to acknowledge because had she not met the right people and not overcome her negative inner voice she may have never graduated.

 

There are many more parts of Westover's story worthy of discussion: the near daily danger encountered on her father's junkyard (I was often shocked that she and her siblings survived), the physical and verbal abuse she endured at the hands of her eldest brother Sean, and the lack of intervention on behalf of her mother. I listened to the audiobook version of Educated (which I highly recommend) and found myself sometimes sitting in my driveway holding my breath waiting to hear what happened next, whether she or one of her brothers would survive, whether she'd escape Sean, whether she would do well in one of her classes. I listen to a lot of non-fiction and admire the ability of writers to recall memories and dialogue and share them in a way that conveys the feelings they experienced in those moments. I was anxious when Westover was anxious, in fear when she was scared, and disappointed when she was ignored.

 

If you are in need of a memoir worthy of your time, pick up Educated or stream the audiobook, you will find yourself hoping and rooting for Westover every step of the way.

 

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