By Debbie Meyers
In her senior year in high school in Plainfield, New Jersey, Stacey Peterson was considering which college she wanted to attend. Rutgers University? No, she lived only 20 minutes away, can’t go there—too close. So she went to Syracuse University instead. Four years later, with a prestigious journalism degree in hand, she had visions of a glamourous life as a reporter.
That didn’t happen. At her first job at a small family-owned newspaper, money was so tight that employees had to negotiate on who needed to cash their paycheck first. Several journalism jobs later, Peterson SCILS’97, GSNB’02 found that the more she pursued journalism, the less she liked it.
In what she refers to as almost divine intervention, she went back to school—this time at Rutgers—to earn a master’s in communication to prepare for a career in public relations. She figured she’d get an internship, then work for “a nice Fortune 300 company, have a nice career, a nice little office, and do my little thing.”
Scratch that. Once in the graduate program, she learned that she liked studying communication so much that she wanted to pursue her doctorate. She liked the thrill of learning, the appeal of academia, so she finished the master’s degree and planned to become a career academic with a Ph.D. doing research at a major university.
But that didn’t work out as planned either. Today, she is professor and chair of the Department of ELAP (English Language for Academic Purposes), Linguistics, and Communication Studies at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland, where she puts her heart and soul into teaching, not research.
Peterson, who plans for her estate to support an endowed scholarship for graduate students at Rutgers who need financial support, shares her journey.
Back to School
Part of why I wanted to leave Rutgers in my will is that I know there are people out there like me going through life changes at a time when you’re hoping that you had figured it out already. I was in my 30s and my career plans didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. And I know how some money—it doesn’t have to be a lot—can help.
When Rutgers became a part of my life, I was flailing around. Sometimes that happens. You say to yourself, “Well, now what am I going to do? I spent these four years, I’ve got this student debt, and I’m trying to figure out what the heck to do with my life. And good grief, have I made a big mistake?”
I literally had this epiphany. I was living with my parents at the time and can’t quite figure out what I want to do with myself. I go upstairs to my bedroom and I just lie down and say, “Okay, where was I in my life when I had the most happiness as an adult?”
I sit there for a few minutes and the universe says, “College.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m going back to college.” Whenever I tell the story to my students, they always crack up because I say, “And then I ran downstairs and grabbed the telephone book and looked up Rutgers University.”
I called up the master’s program in communication and information studies, met with the dean, and started classes.
I was nontraditional every step of the way. I went to school part-time and treated my part-time job as my student aid. It was nice because it enabled me to balance out the two spheres of my life.
While I was going to school, I worked at New Jersey Citizen Action, educating people about the home-buying process and credit. We started these first-time home buyers’ programs with a particular focus on single women, telling them, “You can own a home. You could be the queen of your castle.” It was very inspiring.
Not that long ago, in the ’70s, a woman might have to get permission to get a loan, permission from her husband to get a credit card. Think about all the women who don’t have that sense of independence, that sense of self, because you are defined by this relationship to a man. So that that knocks out people who aren’t heterosexual. That knocks out people who purposely don’t want to get married, which is another identity of mine. (I am single by choice. A lot of times people say, “How come you never got married?” And I say, “I never really met anybody who I wanted to be married to.”)
A teacher first
Knowing what I know now, when I finished school, I wish I had looked at community colleges. I would’ve had a very different job search experience. What if you really groove on being in the classroom and you want to spend the bulk of your time doing that? I would’ve landed differently because I could have built the teaching path and not so much worry about research and tenure and all those things that can give you stress.
Sometimes I look at my life and I say, “Stace, what are you doing to change society?” You see this young man in Florida running for Congress, you see Greta Thunberg and her work with climate change. And I’m thinking, “These are little kids, and look at them. What are you doing, Stace?” Then I’ll sit there and I’ll say, “Well, Stace, you teach.”
I can change other people’s lives doing this. I may not know when and if it happens, but I know you’re going to get your best out of me. Every time I come into the room, I feel like I owe it to give my best.
I remember the day I completed my dissertation defense and when I walked out, my chair said, “Congratulations, Dr. Peterson.” I’m getting chills sharing this now even though it was 21 years ago.
I speak of Rutgers with such pride. When people talk to me about college, they hear that interspersed with my love of New Jersey!
If you’re interested in learning more about gift planning, please contact the Estate and Gift Planning Office at Rutgers University Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 888-782-3666.
What I Know Now is a series featuring alumni reflecting on their careers and their time at Rutgers.