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Messages girls receive key to becoming college graduates

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I had no one to encourage me to stay with it. No one understood how important it would be to my future – Gail Miller

SALT LAKE CITY — The research says fewer Utah women go to college than their peers nationwide because they can't afford it. It also says they don't go because of family issues, a lack of direction or negative experiences in school.

But the reasons they go — and complete college degrees — are also tied to the messages young women receive about the value of education and their sense of personal accountability, according to speakers who took part the United Way of Salt Lake's Women and Education Summit on Tuesday.

Take Gail Miller. She oversees an enterprise that employs 8,000 people in multiple states. She and her late husband, Larry H. Miller, have made a personal commitment to ensure their children, grandchildren, the children of employees and employees themselves have the means to go to college.

Miller was enrolled in college, but "my dad had a stroke and I never went back. I look back now and what a tremendous loss that was for me educationally, socially and in terms of having a well-rounded life."

Miller, who took part in a panel discussion on the role of family in ensuring student success, said young women need advocates to tell them that obtaining an education and family obligations are not mutually exclusive goals.

"I had no one to encourage me to stay with it. No one understood how important it would be to my future," she said.

A college degree generally means higher lifetime earning potential and lower rates of unemployment. But Miller said mothers who complete college are more supportive parents, "more likely to provide children with environments that encourage intellectual and emotional development."

Mental health professional Fred Riley said he believes parenting plays a role in whether young women complete their college education, particularly teaching children to be self-reliant and self-sufficient.

Riley recounted his conversation with a university president who had received a telephone call from the mother of student who called to complain that her daughter could not find a parking space on campus.

"We have to be better at kids being personally responsible," Riley said, who suggested that by age 16, every child should have a job to learn important life skills.

Jose Enriquez, founder and executive director of Latinos in Action, said his mother's sacrifices spoke volumes about how much she prized education for her children. She immigrated to the United States from war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s, leaving her children with her mother for two years until she could support her young family.

She has a third-grade education and has made a living cleaning houses. She saw to it that Enriquez not only graduated from college but encouraged him to earn a doctorate.

"Everything I do, I do for her," Enriquez said.

He said when he graduated from Brigham Young University with his doctorate, "I remember seeing her in this auditorium, this little brown face in a sea of white faces. She finally had a doctor in her home. It made all the sacrifices worth it," he said.

Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University, said he takes no pride in the fact that UVU has one of the lowest percentages of female students in the nation. But on the other hand, the university has begun, through its Womens Success Center and the Utah Women and Education Project, to research the issue and develop strategies to reverse the trend.

Men play an important role in that goal, he said.

"Are we talking about education with our young women? Is it just built into the fabric of our conversations with young women?"

Beyond that, girls need to visit college campuses and parents need to save money to help pay for their educations.

While the college conversation is often tied to the connection between education and career development, Holland said, "I do think education for the sake of education is a particularly powerful message for women."

According to the United Way of Salt Lake, women who complete post-secondary education live longer, give birth to healthier babies and have healthier children.

Moreover, they are generally more confident, more involved in the political process and better prepared to support themselves and their families.

Alexis de Tocqueville, author of "Democracy in America," recognized that women, as carriers of the most important social virtues, were central to the nation's success, Holland said.

To further the nation's interests, women need to be prepared to go to college and to succeed.

"We not only risk a lack of economic prosperity, we risk the very health of this great republic," Holland said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com