Real education is transformative. For nontraditional college student Gina Barreca, it added to and changed her perspective. The curious and open-minded Brooklyn kid moved from one learning experience to another, and today she is a professor of English at University of Connecticut and a highly regarded author.


Her writing can be very funny, and I suspect that humor is one personal strength that has been part of her for a long time. Her work also is wise, which makes for a powerful combination. Wisdom is something that tends to come with experience. I’d love to hear which of her personal traits she believes have been impacted by education.

Real learning implies personal change. Once we’ve learned something, we’re not quite the same person, especially when it’s one of those learning experiences that matters. Learning involves far more than the collection of academic credits or degrees.

In a piece published last December in the Seattle Times,

Barreca likens possession of a college degree to having a wedding ring:

It’s meaningless if it’s there just for show. Like a thin piece of gold, a printed piece of paper — even in a fancy font — is worthless unless it represents substantial personal commitment.

She’s right. Both a college degree and a wedding ring ought to represent change in someone. That’s true whether the learning occurs in a liberal arts curriculum, in vocational education, or in a series of life experiences that are completely removed from formal educational institutions.

Learning that changes us ultimately involves our hearts and minds. That’s one of the beauties of a good liberal arts education. But such turning points can happen in other kinds of environments too.

A man that I have gotten to know through volunteer work experienced profound change while in prison. Something turned inside him. He approached a fellow inmate that he knew had gotten sober. Told the man that he was ready to get sober. One thing led to another. He “worked the steps,” as they say in AA, and went beyond achieving sobriety—which is no small feat in itself. He knows that he is a changed person. Today, he’s working a full-time job, living on his own, and is a big part of his daughter’s life.

The being ready part is the catch, whether one is a student in a university or in the school of hard knocks. When I taught community college students who’d reached that point, my work was easy because the critical change already had happened. Those students saw themselves and the world in a different way: they held a perspective that made them far more likely to be successful and to have meaning in their lives—like my formerly incarcerated friend. Such individuals tend to look inward for explanations for their success or failure, rather than at factors beyond their control. Our perspectives—the way we see things—factor mightily into our life’s direction.


Gina Barreca tells us that a good liberal arts experience can help us change our perspective. Of course, that might not be what most freshmen would announce as their primary motivation in attending college. Yes, a good education can help us acquire the ability to earn income—nothing to sneeze at, but it goes far beyond dollar-earning power. I love how she puts it: You gain authority not only over subjects, but over yourself. That’s change that makes your life better. And the ripple effects benefit all of us.


Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” was featured in the May issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S.