Education changed everything for Eugene T. Moore School of Education founding Dean George J. Petersen and his family. Now, he is ready to do the same for children and families throughout South Carolina — and beyond.
As founding dean of Clemson’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education, you would expect me to say glowing things about the role of education in the lives of individuals, families, communities and societies.
You would be correct, but not just because I have spent my adult life studying, teaching and serving in the education field.
It’s because education literally changed my life.In the 1960s, my mother was a single parent to three young children — my two younger sisters and me. Divorced and without a high school diploma, she had worked as a migrant farm worker, hotel maid and seamstress in California.
At times, when things got hard, we would live a week or two in a hotel room or the home of a family member or friend. Eventually, we went on to rent a home in East Los Angeles — a small place, but one all our own.
Faced with few options, Mom decided to go back to school. I was too young to comprehend the reasons at the time, but I came to understand that she wanted a better life for herself and for us, and that she wanted the sense of pride and accomplishment that came with pursuing an education.
So pursue she did. She always loved children, so she ran a day care, keeping 16 kids in our home during the day, and at night, she went back to school. First, she got her GED, and then she earned a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. At age 40, with her credential in hand, she became a kindergarten teacher.
And our lives were never the same.
But beyond the career success that came to her and her children, Mom achieved the immeasurable accomplishment of standing on her own two feet and doing what she wanted to do for her family. She was able, in a sense, to command her own destiny.
That’s what education provides.
We often think of education as a formal process, a throughput to learn particular things and achieve a particular degree or credential. That formal process is valuable, and my education colleagues and I work hard to prepare students to shape that process in meaningful ways.
But I like to define education a little more broadly. In its best and broadest sense, education is the exposure to different ideas, different habits, different cultures, different thought processes and different disciplines. It happens in PK-12 schools, colleges, internships, apprenticeships, military training, technical education and professional development. It happens across kitchen tables, in conference rooms, on athletic fields and in ordinary conversations. At its best, education is the practice of learning and growing — and a process that never ends.
The pursuit of education enhances a person’s capacity and dignity. Education develops who you are, how you relate to other people and how you make decisions in a complex, integrated world. It also shapes how you see yourself. It did for my mother, for my sisters and me, and for everyone who actively engages with education.
The mission of educators — teachers, counselors, administrators, all of us — is to enhance the intellectual, emotional and social capacity of people. As that takes place, not only individuals but also entire families and communities are transformed.
Because of Mom’s experience, it wasn’t a question of whether or not we would go to college; it was an expectation. And that expectation was handed down to my two sons, who are both college graduates. My oldest is teaching for Teach for America at a Title 1 school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and my youngest is following his dream of being a major league baseball player, having been drafted by the Los Angeles Angels after graduating. The capacity of the Petersen family is forever changed because of the actions of my Mom.
The impact of education is also seen in communities. Research shows that there is a significant relationship between the educational level of a community and other factors such as economic status, the quality of schools and public services, and crime rates. When individuals are educated, the capacity of their communities is also enhanced. Education is the game changer.
That reality is one of the reasons I traveled across the country to become founding dean of the Eugene T. Moore School of Education. An important part of our mission is to partner with underserved schools and communities in South Carolina to create sustainable, thoughtful methods for enhancing capacity. We have a very generous benefactor who shares this vision, along with alumni, donors and friends who recognize the need for quality education in communities where capacity may be limited due to location, poverty, violence, economics or other factors. Our faculty, staff and students realize that through their abilities, they play a vital role in shaping South Carolina’s educational future.
I am excited to be a part of the Clemson family, one that embraces educational excellence and is dedicated to making a difference in the Palmetto State, the nation and the world. Clemson has the people, ability and focus to move the needle in a positive direction as it relates to education — from pre-K through college and in communities, here and everywhere. I am looking forward to a continued partnership with my colleagues to engage that work.
As we do that, more children will have a life-changing experience and the opportunity for immeasurable accomplishments through education, just like Mom.