If Not a University, Then What?

“If Not a University, Then What?” New Era, Sept. 1992, 38

Special Issue:
Education—Learn Wisdom In Thy Youth

If Not a University, Then What?

Getting a good education doesn’t always mean seeking a degree at a four-year university. In fact, there are other ways to learn skills or seek a profession that involve alternatives to a four-year program. Here are a few people who have followed their interests and their hearts. Their advanced education comes from programs or opportunities other than traditional four-year university study.

Bret May: Landscaper

When Bret May was a high school freshman in Salmon, Idaho, one of his summer jobs was doing maintenance for a mobile home park. He never imagined he was beginning to discover what he wanted to do for a career. “Mostly I did upkeep work,” he says, “but I loved it when I got a chance to do landscaping.”

Other jobs followed, including a lawn-mowing business with his brother, Clint, and work with landscaping crews as he finished high school. Then he enrolled at Ricks College, a Church-sponsored school in Rexburg, Idaho, which offered a two-year degree in landscaping.

“Following my first year of schooling, I went on an occupational internship and spent about three months working for a landscape contractor in southern Utah. I gained some practical experience at that point; then after my internship I went on a mission, not knowing whether my career ideas would change.

“I was called to the Arizona Phoenix Mission, and after I’d been there about six months, I knew I was going to stick with landscaping. Every place I went, especially when I saw the beautiful homes and surroundings in Scottsdale, I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.

“But I also had a goal that I wanted to operate my own landscape installation company. When I returned from my mission, I got a little impatient. I didn’t want to go for a four-year degree, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time working for someone else. So I got my two-year degree, then set myself up so I could work for several different contractors for short periods of time, so I could get a variety of experience.” Bret realized his dream of starting his own landscaping business. Today you’ll find him in St. George, Utah, where he’s still spending his days outdoors, “creating additional living space outside people’s homes.”

If you’re trying to decide what career you want to follow, Bret suggests working for as many people as you can, with the attitude that “I’m here to work hard, and I’m here to learn.” Then, he says, “apply what you learn, and pick a program that can give you the training you need.”

Sareah Gardner: Junior Zookeeper

From her home near the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Sareah Gardner can hear the lions roar. It’s nothing new for her to be lying in bed at night and hear the elephants trumpeting. And if it’s really still, she’ll listen for the seals barking. The noise from a wide variety of animals is one of the advantages of living near a zoo.

Another advantage is that Sareah is close enough to Hogle Zoo that she can walk to work, something she has done each summer since 1987, when she became one of the zoo’s junior zookeepers. In this program, young people with an interest in animals can help take care of the animals by feeding them, cleaning their cages, and taking them for walks. It gives them hands-on experience with a variety of animals, and, in Sareah’s case, helps them decide if working with animals is something they want to do for a career.

“It’s a great chance to be involved with the animals, and to learn about them,” says Sareah, who thought she wanted to be a veterinarian when she began in the program. Now, graduated from high school, she says she’d rather do something involving wildlife biology.

But back when she first became a junior zookeeper, Sareah wasn’t sure if the job was for her. “When I first started, I thought, What have I gotten myself into? I didn’t expect it to be what it was.” It turned out that Sareah was asked to clean the cages her first day on the job. It wasn’t very fun, and it certainly wasn’t very glamorous. “The job has become more enjoyable, and I don’t mind what I’m doing when I’m doing the worst job,” says a more experienced Sareah, reflecting on her first days at the zoo.

Sareah’s interest in animals stems from family camping trips where she would go with her older brother and look for animal tracks, hoping to see different forms of wildlife. “It was a really neat thing to be the one who spotted the animal first, not just to see it,” she says. “Those trips have given me an appreciation for wilderness, and helped interest me in animals.”

When Sareah’s not camping, she can step into her yard and usually find animals roaming there, as well. In the nine years her family has lived in the house near the zoo, they’ve had skunks, porcupines, deer, raccoons, and quail stopping for a visit. The most recent inhabitant was a pheasant, and they’ve even had a rattlesnake stalking the premises. It’s no wonder Sareah considers her yard a refuge park.

With college in Sareah’s future, her days as a junior zookeeper are numbered. Learning about different animals has been one of the enjoyable parts of her job. In college, she expects the learning to only intensify.

As far as a career goes, she’s leaving her options open. Sareah does know that because of her love for animals, a job with animals is definitely in her future.

Juan Mijares: Violin Maker

You would have a hard time finding someone who’s happier right now than Juan Mijares.

He got the education of his dreams, the job of his dreams, and the life of his dreams, “and even more,” he says.

He’s not sitting in a luxurious penthouse office making million dollar decisions; he doesn’t travel the world to be greeted by adoring fans. Juan is a violin maker in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Success is not just making more money than the next guy,” Juan says. “It’s learning to be happy with your life, and I am. There’s no place I’d rather go, even on vacation, than here at the shop, because I look forward to building violins.”

When Juan was a teenager in California, he never guessed that he’d one day become a violin maker. When he decided he wanted a guitar and saw how much they cost, he got a book and built his own. He was completely unaware that there were four-year, professional schools that teach you how to do that sort of thing.

There are only a few violin-making schools in the world. Juan was lucky enough to hear about one during his freshman year at BYU. It was located in nearby Salt Lake City.

How perfect, he thought, to be able to create something beautiful—a singing work of art—for a living. Although Juan was nervous, he found the entrance exams, which included personal interviews and tests for dexterity, drawing, and musical aptitude, exciting.

But there was something else he found even more exciting—the prospect of serving a mission. Juan asked if his application could be deferred a few years, and the school obliged him. More than 100 people from all over the world come each year to apply, and the school only accepts about eight people in each class.

When Juan returned from his mission to Washington, D.C., he began his career at the Violin Making School of America and became totally absorbed in the curriculum. “I was lucky,” he says. “Some people can’t wait to get out of school. But I loved it. We ate, breathed, slept violins. It was an unbelievable experience. I wasn’t worried too much about the future. I was just trying to soak up everything and do as well as I could before I had to leave.”

Juan did have time, though, to attend a student ward and take an institute class. He often involved his non-LDS classmates in Church activities.

After he graduated, he found work, married, and started a family. That led him to where he is now, in Colorado Springs.

“We’ll never be rich,” Juan says, “but we have plenty of work. I can support my family, and we don’t need sports cars or designer clothes or anything like that.

“The important thing is to pursue your dreams—to follow your passion, no matter how unconventional. Even if you have to compromise a little and do it only in your spare time, doing what you love will make you a richer person.”

Jason Nicholl: Emergency Medical Technician

When you look at Jason Nicholl’s medical history, it’s no wonder he eventually wants to become a doctor. He’s certainly visited enough of them in his life. Even less surprising is the fact Jason worked as an emergency medical technician before leaving to serve a full-time mission in the Nevada Las Vegas Mission. After being helped for all these years, he figures he needs to start giving back and helping others.

“I’ve always been a klutz. On every Scout campout, I’d do something to hurt myself,” says Jason. Let’s see, there was the time he sliced off the top of his finger while closing a pocketknife. There was the speed-cutting contest where he was chopping with an ax that hit a knot in the log, flew up, and embedded itself in his ankle.

He’d like to remember the time he was night skiing when one of his skis came off, hit him in the face, broke his nose and knocked him out. He spent four days in the hospital, but he’s still a little foggy about that episode.

Besides his nose, Jason has broken two of his ribs, his arm, his hand, and his foot. To this day he can’t tell you how many fingers he’s broken. “Countless,” he says. But as the youngest emergency medical technician for an ambulance company in Salt Lake City, Jason began working toward the goal he’s had since he was six years old. “One day when I was six, I was sitting in front of the TV watching this health channel where they were showing some surgical procedure. It fascinated me,” Jason recalls. “That’s when I decided I wanted to be a doctor.”

Jason knows he has a lot of schooling ahead of him once he returns from his mission. However, he’s already learned much about the body because of the training he has received as an EMT. Many EMTs use their training as stepping-stones to jobs in law enforcement or related medical careers.

In fact, when Jason returns from his mission, he hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a paramedic. While EMTs are trained in basic life support, paramedics know advanced life support techniques and are able to perform emergency procedures EMTs can’t. Jason sees this as the next logical step toward his ultimate career goal.

He knows that after spending two years as a missionary, it will take some time to get his skills back when he returns. But it’s a tradeoff he’s willing to make. “I believe in the gospel and I believe in the work,” Jason says.

Besides, when he gets back he’ll have the rest of his life ahead of him.

Penny Edwards: Legal Secretary

Penny Edwards was in the ninth grade when she realized that someday she wanted to work in the business world. The process was simple enough: she took some business classes. Since she was also interested in the law, but didn’t want to become a lawyer, it occurred to her sometime in high school that perhaps legal secretary would be the ideal occupation. And that meant getting some higher education.

Penny’s high school grades were good (mostly A’s and B’s), but she never looked into scholarship possibilities, and she really didn’t save any money for college. So, after graduation, Penny went to work.

It’s easy to just keep working, especially when you have car payments to make, and it took a few years before Penny realized she wasn’t getting any closer to what she really wanted. If you have to work for a year to earn enough money, that’s one thing. “But,” she says, “I waited too long. If you know what you want to do, just do it. Start. Jump in. No one’s going to do it for you.”

So Penny took the leap and enrolled in LDS Business College. There, she began to learn the essentials of being a legal secretary. Yet she knew from experience that there’s more to a job than the technical skills you get in school. For example, one of the things Penny did after high school was to set up a successful business doing artificial nails for women. “It was boring,” she says. “You sit and you are a psychiatrist to all of these women.” She had learned that the working atmosphere and the personality requirements are just as much a part of the job as the technical skills.

That’s why Penny jumped at the chance to get a good, close look at her chosen career before graduation. LDS Business College’s “co-op” program placed her in a paying part-time job with a local real estate/law firm. There, Penny works in a real job setting. She meets regularly with her boss to set goals and objectives. Evaluations from her boss, the program coordinator, and her student adviser become the basis for her grade. Best of all, she knows first-hand that the job is something she will enjoy doing full-time.

“You can sit in class,” Penny continues, “and you can read the information in a book, and you can even give the right answers on tests. But there is no way to know how you are really going to feel in a work environment until it happens to you, day in and day out.”

Whether it’s in a co-op program like the one Penny’s in, or in an internship of some kind, Penny notes that “It’s very beneficial to work in an environment before you graduate to see if you really want it.”

David Burnell: Military

Ever since he was a little boy, David Burnell dreamed of serving his country in the military. So shortly after he returned from serving the Lord in the Canada Halifax Mission, David joined the U.S. Air Force. Now he’s not only a staff sergeant, he’s also a communications and computer specialist at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

The military has become an alternate route to education for many people. There are opportunities to receive training and college credit in several fields, including the ones David chose.

“I had a hard time visualizing success in going to school and being married and working all at the same time,” David said. “It scared me, so I came in the service, hoping at the same time to serve my country and maybe obtain a little bit of education. It turned out that I’ve obtained a lot.” With the help of his military training, he is close to a bachelor’s degree in the management of computer information systems at Park College in Missouri.

In high school, David was an avid pole vaulter, wrestler, and football player with a 3.3 grade point average. He took a few college prep classes and even registered twice at a junior college, but never attended. He lost his motivation when he had trouble getting the classes he wanted.

Thanks to a patriotic father, the military had always been in David’s mind. He did a summer reserve program with the Marines when he was 17 and liked it, so after his mission he decided to try the service full-time.

But life in the service can also bring unexpected challenges, like learning to deal with a new way of life and being away from your family.

“Sometimes the life-style can make you hard or callous,” David says. “It could desensitize you if you don’t study your scriptures and pray frequently and do all those things that we’re commanded to do.”

Interested? Shop around until you find the program or military school you want, and don’t sign anything until you know what you’re getting. You may have to wait a while to get into the right program, but it will be worth it. Also, know how useful it will be after you leave the service. Some training will help you get a job in the civilian world and some won’t.

“I would recommend people grabbing as much education as they can prior to coming in the military,” David says. “They would have a wider span of knowledge where they could make a better decision. Sometimes when you come in right out of school or right off a mission and you haven’t gone to school, you don’t really have the opportunity to see a whole lot of different options.”

Doug Spencer: Journeyman Carpenter

To Doug Spencer, the most interesting thing to watch is a house being built. “The color of that brand-new wood and seeing it stick framed and slowly coming together—that’s as exciting to me as going to a movie or anything else.”

Not surprisingly then, Doug Spencer of Tooele, Utah, has decided on a career as a builder, more specifically, a carpenter. He is just completing a four-year apprenticeship to become a journeyman carpenter. The program, run by the carpenter’s union, combines on-the-job training with evening classwork. Although Doug does not enjoy schoolwork, the apprenticeship classes were more interesting to him because they related closely with his profession.

Doug’s love of woodworking has been an interest for as long as he can remember. “When I was a kid, the neighbor across the street was a contractor. I would go over to his house because he would let me help him build things and teach me how to use tools.”

Another example to Doug during his growing up years was his Scoutmaster. “It sounds funny,” says Doug, “but when I was a kid I would look at his hands. They were weathered from working hard. I wanted my hands to look like his. He was such a good man. I wanted to be just like him.”

Although Doug says he never cared for school, his family had strong academic ties. Doug’s father was the Dean of Admissions and Records at BYU for years. His parents encouraged Doug to take different kinds of classes and get a taste of everything. His father came up with a unique way to encourage Doug to get good grades in junior high and high school. They had a deal that if Doug maintained a B average, his father would buy him a new tool at the end of the semester.

After high school, Doug left to serve a mission where he faced a challenge. A mission required a lot of study and hard work. Doug knew all about the value of hard work from his part-time jobs. Hard work didn’t worry him. He applied his attitude of never quitting when the going gets tough to the study he needed for his mission. “I learned the scriptures,” says Doug, “and that made me feel good about myself so I could talk intelligently about the Church.”

When he returned from his mission, he started working full-time in an office. But he wasn’t happy. He wanted to build something where he could see his progress day to day. “When I worked in the office job, I couldn’t turn around after a year and see what I had accomplished. I can work for one week framing a house and turn around and see what I’ve done. I just like to be able to look and appreciate the job I’ve done.” With the support of his wife, Janell, and his parents, Doug applied for and was accepted in the carpenter’s union apprenticeship program.

The life of a carpenter can be a good and righteous life. After all, the greatest man to walk the earth knew the feel of tools and the smell of new wood.

“I liked working outdoors. And I liked being able to change the environment, to do something to create an additional living space outside people’s homes.”—Bret May. (Photograph by Richard M. Romney.)

“The best part of the job is a combination of the people I work with and learning about the animals. In the program we mainly take care of the animals, whatever needs to be done.”—Sareah Gardner. (Photograph by Melanie Shumway.)

“I couldn’t live waiting to be happy until I made a lot of money, or until I retire. Making violins, I am happy right now. I enjoy life.”—Juan Mijares. (Photograph by Lisa A. Johnson.)

“The things we do as emergency medical technicians are often learned in the field. There’s a lot of on-the-job training in this job.”—Jason Nicholl “I’ve learned more from this job than anything I’ve done before. My dad is a battalion chief of the fire department. It’s great having a father I can talk to, find out about things and learn from.”—Jason Nicholl. (Photograph by John Luke.)

“Put money aside for your education. Someone can repossess your car, but they can’t take your education away.”—Penny Edwards. (Photograph by Melanie Shumway.)

“I would recommend people grabbing as much education as they can prior to coming in the military.”—David Burnell. (Photograph by Edgar W. Matuska.)

“I’ve always been hard working. My parents saw that, and I think that helped them accept that I didn’t want to go to college. They knew I would work hard at whatever I did.”—Doug Spencer

“I never was interested in school. I always enjoyed working with my hands. I hated math in school, but now I can do it in my head because it relates to a job I’m doing. The apprenticeship was a good way for me to go.”—Doug Spencer. (Photograph by Melanie Shumway.)

Still-life photography by Steve Bunderson