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Make Something of Yourself

NC State employee Teresa Benjamin makes a case for the value of a college degree and why it’s never too late to pursue one.

Teresa Benjamin holds up her golden-framed diploma from North Carolina Wesleyan College

Voices is a series of first-person narratives written by members of the NC State community reflecting on experiences that have shaped their personal and professional lives. Teresa Benjamin, an accounting technician for the College of Engineering, reflects on the life-changing impacts of higher education.

When I was growing up in rural southern Virginia, education was not stressed as important in our household. 

We were poor — as in we had no hot running water or telephone. In elementary school, my twin sister, Lisa, and I only had three complete hand-me-down outfits each to wear to school. Neither of my parents graduated high school. My mother, who grew up during the Great Depression in a family of 20-plus brothers and sisters, worked in a sewing factory. My father, a chain-smoking alcoholic, drove a truck delivering propane and heating oil. His health issues eventually caused a disability that prevented him from working.

Despite our circumstances, Lisa and I excelled in school and always made the honor roll. We were socially accepted and popular, too, and we were cheerleaders for about five years. We both graduated high school without having gotten into any kind of trouble. 

Unfortunately, because of our upbringing and a lack of parental support, Lisa and I graduated with no clear plans for college or careers. We didn’t get much support from our school, either. When we asked counselors for help, they wrote us off, even though with the right guidance we could have gone to college. On top of all that, we faced dwindling support from our friends who had grown up in middle-class homes. They couldn’t relate to our post-high school situation because they had family support, and many had already been accepted to college. Ultimately, Lisa and I attended the local community college for a year before we quit and began working in the same sewing factory as our mother. 

We worked in that factory for about two years before following friends to Raleigh in the mid-1980s, in hopes of joining a rock band. After our plans to join the band didn’t pan out, we moved on to jobs in retail and administrative work. But it didn’t take long for us to realize that in order for us to be considered for the types of positions we really wanted, we had to finish our undergraduate degrees. But how? We had to work to pay the bills, and we couldn’t quit our jobs to go back to school during the day. 

Around that time, we discovered that North Carolina Wesleyan College offered an accelerated-degree program that allowed adults in the workforce to complete their degrees by attending classes one to two nights a week. Then the big question became how to pay for it. Even though Lisa and I were working full time and would be taking night classes a couple of nights a week, we knew we’d have to get part-time jobs as well. 

For the next several years, our lives revolved around full-time jobs, part-time jobs and school. To say it was a struggle is an understatement.

My life is proof that the dream of getting an education to help further your career is attainable for anyone — and that it’s well worth the effort.

The struggle paid off when Lisa and I graduated with honors in May 1997 with bachelor’s degrees in business administration. Within several months of graduation, both of us moved on to higher-level positions in human resources, employee benefits and finance in banks and other financial institutions. We took on more supervisory roles over the years — something we couldn’t have done without our degrees — and we’ve continued to take classes and attend seminars to improve our skills and knowledge base. 

Looking back on our upbringing, Lisa and I are dumbfounded by how far we’ve come. We have inspired some of our friends and co-workers to fulfill their dreams by going back to school to get their undergraduate degrees. Even my children — who grew up as part of the Wolfpack, with their dad graduating from NC State in the 1980s — have a heightened awareness of how important going to college is because they know about my struggles to get an education. My son is a rising junior at NC State in the College of Sciences, pursuing a biology degree. My daughter just graduated high school, and she’ll attend NC State this fall in the Life Sciences First Year program. 

My life is proof that the dream of getting an education to help further your career is attainable for anyone — and that it’s well worth the effort.