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Why I Do What I Do

from Mindy Bingham

What intrigued me in the letter was the line, ‘And I confess to a curiosity about the path that took you to and then from animal science’ …to ‘educational activist, author and entrepreneur.’ Hummm, I thought, what was it? And for a brief moment I panicked. How ironic for an individual who had authored many books on the issues of identity formation and career exploration, I couldn’t easily answer that question.

My first response: was it the ‘educational’ gene? It was just that morning my husband and I had a philosophical discussion on the topic of ‘nature versus nurture’ (I come down strongly on the side of nurture). After all, my parents were both teachers and I was proud of the fact that my father’s grandmother was one of the first female principals of a public school in England in the late 1800’s.

What was the path that took me from my Animal Science degree to impassioned champion of classroom-based, career-and-life planning for the early adolescent? Over a cup of tea, I started peeling back the onion of my experience; with each layer, a new ‘ah-ha.’

The first “big word” I learned to spell was veterinarian. (I still rattle it off in much the same way Jiminy Cricket taught us to spell encyclopedia.) In the second grade, when asked to write our first paper on what we wanted to be when we grew up, I remember how proud I was that I could spell veterinarian with no help. My 7-year-old mind reasoned that this was the perfect way to spend my life given my love of animals, particularly horses, coupled with my fascination with anything to do with science (thank you Mr. Wizard!).

Oh yes, I bounced around with notions of other options as I grew up, yet I always came back to veterinarian. But a girl has to earn a living, at least if you want gas money to go cruising with your friends, so as my first entrepreneurial effort I started my own math tutoring service. It wasn’t long before my reputation of being able to tutor any student to success meant I had a waiting list of clients.

I learned some important lessons from my five years tutoring math (elementary math through algebra and geometry). One: work for yourself. While my girl friends were making $1.25 per hour working at Sears and local department stores, I was making $2.50 per hour—and my students were coming to me.

“The most important question an instructor can answer each day is, 'Why?' Why do we have to learn this? What benefit does what I'm learning have on my life?”

Two: any student can learn. The task, I discovered, was to figure out how a particular person processes and learns information. I found each to be different. Luckily I had the time and the opportunity to individualize and personalize each lesson—something sadly most classroom teachers don’t have the opportunity for today.

But most important, I learned something that would drive what I do and is the key to the success of the curriculums I write today. This theme cropped up with each of my students, so I took every opportunity I could to explain or demonstrate the value of a good math education as it related to their future happiness. I patterned my word problems and drills around this topic and quickly I watched light bulbs go off and attitudes change. The unmotivated became the motivated and, once motivated, any student can learn.

Circumstances required that I put myself through college. By the time I entered Cal Poly (September 1971) I had been out of school a year, trying to survive in an economically- challenged environment. After this experience I knew I would do what it took to get my degree. I studied hard but because I also had to work 30-to-40 hours per week just to make ends meet, I knew getting the grade point average required to get into U.C. Davis veterinary school was going to be tough (note: it didn’t matter that at that time, it was “accepted” that only a handful of matriculating vet students would be female). I had a dream and I was going for it.

Alas I had to be at work by 3:00 p.m. (I was a director of a teen center in Montebello, 30 miles away), so many afternoon science lab sessions had to be cut short. My avocation (teenagers) once again provided the vocational opportunity necessary so I could stay in school. Except for a beef science/feed lot project with my girlfriend (who did most of the work), I wasn’t able to participate in extra curricular activities at Cal Poly. I was your classic invisible student. I went to class, took my tests and just hoped I could keep all the balls in the air to get the grades I needed to go to vet school, (at the same time hoping my professors didn’t notice I slipped out early from of many lab sessions).

At a required session with my college advisor I was reminded that if I was to have any chance of getting into vet school, I would need a recommendation from a practicing veterinarian—which usually meant working for one. So in the summer between my junior and senior year I took a cut in pay (back to minimum wage) and a cut in status (kennel cleaner by morning and dog holder in the afternoon) and went to work full-time for a well-known animal hospital.

It wasn’t long before I started questioning my career choice. I knew I should have been thrilled but something just wasn’t right. I found the work of the doctors tedious. Each case blended into the next. Before long the only tasks I looked forward to were the surgeries that I assisted with each afternoon. And even most of those were routine. After a few weeks I felt I could do them myself. So on a slow afternoon during one uneventful spay, I made the mistake of suggesting to the doctor that perhaps this time he might try connecting this flap to that….just to try something “different.”

I’ll never forget the dressing down I got. This normally mild-mannered man waxed on about how great surgeons do everything by the book. That if I needed to be “creative” that this was not the line of work for me. Fortunately he articulated what I could not. I had chosen the wrong field.

My summer internship finished shortly thereafter and I returned to Cal Poly frustrated and scared. I had just spent the last three years pushing myself to qualify for vet school only to find out it was not a match for me. I was lost. I couldn’t afford to change majors, so I knew I’d have to make do and just focus on the ultimate goal: to get a college degree. At least with that, I figured, I could find a decent job.

“In an independent study course my senior year, as my project I developed a paper on my "notion" of what was needed in high schools. I argued that young people needed to understand the vocational options and the decision-making required to make the best choices for themselves at a much earlier age.”

High schools across the country should take this on as part of their mission, I reasoned, so students wouldn’t find themselves in the predicament I found myself in: a city girl, with the skills to be successful in a country setting: ready to graduate with a degree in a default major I had no intention of using.

When I was “invited” to speak to the academic senate of the animal science department about my vision, I was thrilled to say the least. The “invisible” student had an opportunity to show her stuff. Because of that presentation I was named to the Animal Science honorary fraternity Alpha Zeta, a capstone in an otherwise un-illustrious college career of a working student.

I always knew I would work (I do to this day), so it was the skills I had acquired during my avocation efforts (tutoring, teaching, leading students) that in 1973 helped me land a wonderful job, first the Program Director of a large Girls Club, and shortly thereafter the Executive Directorship at the age of 24. For 16 years my need to be creative helped me build that agency into a progressive force for girls.

In 1977 as a divorced single mom, I once again knew I had to find a way to earn extra income. So I pitched an evening course to Westmont, a local liberal arts college. The course entitled Introduction to Non-profit Agency Administration was a business management course for individuals who wanted to work for charitable organizations. For six years I taught the ins and outs of what it took to make their vision of a better world viable to upper division students (usually seniors).

I soon discovered my students were in the same predicament I had been in years earlier. Their career choices were based on vague notions of what would be right for them. Because the class was three hours long, each evening I spent the last half hour presenting concepts, activities and exercises that would help them laser-focus their career choice.

Many of my students, weeks away from college graduation, came to the same realization that I had. What they had spent four years preparing themselves for was not what they really wanted to do. At the end of each semester many students lamented some form of this theme, why didn’t someone do this with me when I was in high school, when I could have planned a career trajectory that matched my passions, aptitudes and strengths?

“All of my seventeen books and curriculums have one theme in common: Know yourself and then consciously plan for a future that is self-sufficient and personally satisfying.”

And so started the effort that would culminate in what I do today. All my seventeen books and curriculums have one theme in common: Know yourself and then consciously plan for a future that is self-sufficient and personally satisfying. I, along with others, continue to champion the message that all schools should have a mandated classroom-based comprehensive guidance course in either the 8th or 9th grade. Because the dropout rate for college is higher than the dropout rate for high school, all students stand to benefit from such a course. These academically-rigorous courses culminate with each student writing a quantitative and meaningful 10-year plan that we recommend is updated yearly.

Fifteen years ago, while writing my Career Choices curriculum, (the materials that I built my company Academic Innovations around), I was fortunate enough to attract the attention of Dr. Kenneth Hoyt, the former director of the Office of Career Education for the U.S. Department of Education, and fondly known as the “father” of career education.

As I worked on my final drafts, he pain-stakingly went through my manuscript pointing out any problems and suggesting remedies. Probably the most eminent person in this field, I was floored that an individual of such stature would even notice me, much less spend hours and hours helping me. The demands on his time were tremendous.

One day in a phone call I mumbled my extreme gratitude and, in typical Mindy fashion, I asked why, why had he done so much work on a manuscript from a somewhat unknown, non-academic author. He didn’t hesitate and, in his own direct way, said, “You are helping to realize my mission and therefore I have no choice. I must help you. Mindy, once you know what your mission or purpose is, all other choices are easy.”

That conversation has stayed with me and I have attempted to set my own compass to its ideals. Therefore, it is my intent to continue working for efforts that will further the mission of helping all students develop a vision and plan for a productive and satisfying future. It is my mission; it is my passion. I am truly blessed to spend my waking hours in this pursuit.

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