I can hear it like it was yesterday, resonating in my head, crowding out the doubts and negative thoughts, filling my mind with possibilities: yes, I CAN do it!
I was in my junior year of college and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. It was becoming quite a burden. Because I had always been good in school, i.e., the “smart one,” everyone had expected so much of me when I went to school. I really envied my older sister; she had always been the pretty one, the popular one, the one who got invited to the prom by not one, but three young men. And, it seemed to me at the time, she was so lucky because no one expected her to go out and concur the world after high school. She didn't go to college; she went to secretarial school and studied to become an airline attendant instead. I envied her in every way possible! But at least I had something: I was “the smart one,” or so I thought! Years later, my sister went back to school to study psychology. She earned a 4.0 and was invited to continue on to earn her Ph.D. I’ll be darned if she wasn’t the smart one, too! And she is a wonderful and thoughtful person to boot! But I digress.
Anyway, I was in my junior year of college at the University of Delaware. I went to the University of Delaware largely because I had to pay for college myself and could only afford in-state tuition. Although it was a perfectly acceptable school, I had dreamt about going to an Ivy League school. After all, my older brother had graduated from an elite private high school and had gone to college on a scholarship. But those things seemed out of my reach, especially for a girl.
My brother was now in graduate school in Chicago, and he and I were talking on the phone one night. Ours was an awkward relationship, particularly in person. It was much easier to talk on the phone or write letters. Less personal maybe. More safe.
The fact that we didn’t speak often and weren’t warm and comfortable in person made his comment to me all the more unexpected and memorable and, as it turns out, life-altering. I was telling him about some academic articles I had studied in class. The articles were about economics and regulation, and were so intellectually challenging but accessible and clear. They were written by Sam Peltzman and George Stigler. My brother said to me, “Sherry, both of those men are professors here at the University of Chicago. You should think about applying to the Ph.D. program. I can see you going here. You can do it!”
Well, you could have knocked me over with the tip of your pinky finger. My brother, a lifelong withholder of gratuitous compliments and small talk, had just told me, his pesky little sister, that I should pursue a Ph.D. in economics under the professors whose work I so admired, at the school he was currently attending.
After regrouping, I asked him what a Ph.D. was and what one did with a Ph.D. I remember his saying something about research and teaching. I also vaguely remember that by the end of the conversation, I had a plan for crammin in as much math and economics before taking the GMATs. But what stood out to me then and, every time since when I've had doubts about my skills or career, were those words, those glorious, uplifting words: “You can do it!”
So be careful what you say, especially to those who look up to you. Words can cut you to shreds, but they can also fill you with pride and hope and the joy of what is possible. My brother’s words changed my life; teaching fulfills me; it makes me feel like I am making a small, positive difference in this world. And I often tell my students, with the tangible memory of how it made me feel all those years ago when I first heard it, “You can do it!”