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Starting over: From a one-room Amish schoolhouse to an adult-ed program in Rochester

Susan Miller
Courtesy of Susan Miller
Susan Miller grew up in an Amish community in Michigan. She was the fourth of 11 children in her family.

Students enrolled at the Hawthorne Education Center, the Rochester Public Schools’ adult basic education program, come from a wide variety of backgrounds. There are those who get their high school diploma in the spring and start summer classes a couple of weeks later, looking to improve their math and writing skills to avoid having to take remedial courses when they start college. There are those who dropped out of high school and have come back later in life to get their GED.

And then there are those who are trying to navigate a new language, culture and education system all at once. Over the years, Rochester has become well known as a hub for immigrants and refugees, mostly from African nations. But the Hawthorne Center has long been a go-to resource for another category of adult looking to start over: those who have left the Amish community.

Nadine Holthaus, program manager at Hawthorne, estimates they serve about five to 10 adults who have left the Amish community each year. Last year, for instance, she knows they had at least eight Amish students enrolled in their programs. Students aren’t asked to report their religion in any student records, but it’s a pretty significant piece of their identity that tends to come up once they develop relationships with their teachers and advisers.

Located in southeastern Minnesota, Rochester is situated near a pocket of Amish communities. Staff at Hawthorne frequent the Amish auction in St. Charles, where they purchase fresh vegetables, eggs and flowers, along with furniture and other handmade goods. But for former Amish students who enter classrooms at Hawthorne, the cross-cultural exchange comes at a much higher price.

Once they’ve made the decision to leave their community, they’re essentially shunned. Depending on how strict their church is, that could mean they have a strained relationship with their parents and siblings, but are able to visit every once in a while. Or it could mean they’re never invited back. Either way, they need to forge their own path forward in a modern society that looks vastly different from anything they’re familiar with.

Revisiting education basics

That journey often starts with finding employment and a place to live, as those who leave their Amish community don’t qualify for the same government assistance programs that immigrants and refugees qualify for. Then, for those who have an appetite for education and further career ambitions, there’s a need to revisit the basics in math, reading and writing, since their formal education ended after eight years in a one-room schoolhouse with a nonlicensed teacher.

In many regards, a former Amish student’s path parallels that of an immigrant or refugee. While they learned English in school, they spoke German at home. So, technically, they’re enrolled at Hawthorne as English Language Learners. And since they grew up without electricity, they need to gain digital literacy as well.

“Probably their technology skills are the worst I see,” said Kim Fanning, adult and family literacy coordinator at Hawthorne. “They have none.”

Fanning says it’s mostly Amish women who come through Hawthorne in pursuit of their GED. While some have had the support of other siblings who have struck out on their own, she observes that, for the most part, these students — through incredibly ambitious and inspiring — are some of the most isolated.

Currently, two formerly Amish women enrolled at Hawthorne — Susan Miller, 21, and Rebecca Swartzentruber, 36 — are pursuing college degrees for more advanced jobs in health care. They agreed to sit down for an interview with MinnPost last week to share what it’s like to make the leap from a 19th-century childhood to a cutting-edge industry.

‘Education was more of a luxury’

Swartzentruber was born in Canada, but grew up in a large Amish community in southeastern Minnesota outside of Canton, a city near the Iowa border. She was the seventh child of 15 in her family. And once she turned 4 years old, she was expected to take on her share of chores around the farm. That entailed everything from milking the cows, replenishing the firewood, and working in the fields to sewing clothes and doing laundry by hand, she says. Girls were expected to help out with the outside work, she added, but boys were forbidden from helping with the cooking and cleaning. “More was expected out of the women … because we were expected to do both,” she said.

Rebecca Swartzentruber
Courtesy of Rebecca Swartzentruber
Rebecca Swartzentruber

Much of her free time was spent working to help pay the bills, whether it was cooking baked goods or making a queen-sized quilt with her mom and sisters in just a couple of days to sell. On Sundays, when no official business could be conducted, she remembers reading whatever she could get her hands on. “Us girls somehow always got our hands on those romance books,” she said, smiling. “But if we’d been caught with them, we’d have been in big trouble.”

Her formal education started in first grade and ended after eight years, she said. Her schoolhouse was a one-room building “in somebody’s field” she said. At any given time, there were 20 to 25 kids, spanning each grade level, studying under the same roof, with the same teacher.

Describing the curriculum, she said they only covered the basics in reading and spelling. Every two weeks, they’d have a spelling test, and math consisted of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and some very simple fractions.

“It’s pretty much getting by,” she said, noting that she suspects they never learned how to read or make graphs because her teacher didn’t know much about them.

Much of the instruction was aimed at preparing the boys to work as carpenters, because they were expected to help pay the household bills by finding work off the farm. In some cases, even the boys end up dropping out before completing eighth grade in order to work full time, she says, noting that’s what her husband did.

“My parents were strict,” she says, noting she always got good grades in school. “But to them, education was more of a luxury.”

Much of what Swartzentruber recalled seemed to resonate with Miller — especially the part about the uneven division of labor.

Chores, not homework

While she also worked hard at school, Miller says she was never assigned any homework. “Your parents didn’t expect you to come home with homework because you had chores before and after,” she said.

Miller grew up in an Amish community in Michigan. She was the fourth of 11 children in her family and she, too, recalls spending her free time quilting. Matching Swartzentruber’s burst of nostalgia, she says that when she was in eighth grade, she made a queen-sized quilt in three days, all on her own.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Susan Miller, 21, is pursuing a college degree for a job in health care.

“It was like the sooner I had it done, the sooner I had some down time,” she said, noting it still had to be perfect, but since her parents were away she was able to relax a bit before starting another project.

Her school experience didn't stray much from what Swartzentruber shared: one room and one teacher, except for that year there were 32 students and the teacher had a helper in the classroom. And once she completed eighth grade, she went straight to work at a bakery. “All the money we make, though, goes to our parents,” she said, noting that’s expected until you turn 21 years old.

‘Now that I am a CNA, I want more’

By the time she turned 21, Miller says, she would have been expected to get married and start a family of her own. But she just couldn’t picture herself being a stay-at-home mother, raising children to do the same someday.

“I always felt like if I just stayed Amish, I’d get married and have all these kids,” she said. “They’d go to eighth grade and be expected to … it was not the life I wanted.”

Once she made up her mind to strike out on her own, she got her hands on a cellphone and texted a few of her older siblings who had already left. But she already knew, from writing to them before, that they didn’t approve of her decision. They felt bad for their mother, she said, so they had encouraged her to stay, even though they refused to go back home themselves.

“Wow, you were kind of thrown to the wolves, huh?” Swartzentruber said, sympathizing with Miller.

The year before Miller left her Amish community, she’d moved with her parents and siblings to a more remote settlement in Nebraska. The move was prompted by a push from religious leaders to return to an even stricter adherence to their faith. That meant even discarding some of the dresses they’d made which were now deemed inappropriate. Miller says this move was the thing that prompted her to take action.

Four years ago, she made her way to Rochester and found work at a Country Inn and Suites for a year, then at an apartment complex for the next two years. That’s where she worked on smoothing out her German accent, she says, because she had only been allowed to speak in English at school. She also got her feet under her a bit, since she’d left with hardly any possessions.  

When a friend told her about Hawthorne, she enrolled in afternoon classes to start working on acquiring her GED when she was done working for the day. She took an entry exam and tested in at a seventh-grade level.

“It was so overwhelming,” Miller recalls, noting she’d never even seen much of the math on the test. “You had to commit to it and not let it get to your head.”

She credits her teachers and advisers at Hawthorne for not giving up on her. They’d call and text when she didn’t show up to class, she says, admitting there were times in the beginning when she’d doubted her abilities. And they were extremely patient with her as she struggled to learn how to work on the computer, she added.

But she persisted. After she got her GED, she finished the Certified Nursing Program at Hawthorne. After working for a bit, she re-enrolled at the center to check off some of the foundational courses needed to complete a health-care program through the Rochester Community and Technical College. Currently, she’s taking some courses online, working overnight shifts and going to class during the day. Once she’s completed the program, she’ll seek employment at Mayo Clinic or some other clinical setting.

“I always, as a little girl, said that I wanted to work in a nursing home, even though I didn’t have a full vision of what it would be,” she said. “I knew it'd be taking care of people. Now that I am a [Certified Nursing Assistant], I want more. Now I want that hospital environment.”

For Swartzentruber, starting over as a student at Hawthorne proved challenging in a different way. She had the support of a husband, whom she’d married while they were both still members of their Amish community. In 2002, they decided to leave, with their 18-month-old child.

“We both decided we wanted more out of life,” she said. “So we came to the agreement to leave one night. It was hard on the families, but we didn’t get shunned, like they normally do.”

They first moved to Iowa, and eventually made their way to Rochester, where she and one of her sisters who’d also left the Amish community enrolled in Hawthorne. When she took her evaluation assessment, she tested in at a fourth-grade level.

Working in assisted living setting

More than 20 years removed from school, and now a mother of two, she had a lot of ground to cover. But she stuck with it and acquired her GED this past March. She also completed the CNA program in May and started working at an assisted living place.

She’s currently taking some preparatory summer classes at Hawthorne because she was accepted into the hemodialysis tech program at the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences.

“My long-term goal is radiology,” she said. “Because when my youngest was 3, he broke his leg. They took X-rays. I’d never been around X-rays before. They let me be in the room with him, showed me everything. That’s what got me hooked on radiology — to be able to see people's bones and that stuff.”

The self-described “tech junkie” says she’s fortunate in that she and her husband are both allowed to return home to visit their parents and siblings from time to time. Last weekend, in fact, they were planning to drop off a load of firewood at a family farm. But she’s never tempted to return to the lifestyle she left behind in exchange for an education and a career.

“Especially when somebody asks me, in the middle of winter, I just look at them and say, ‘Are you crazy? There’s no way I’m trading in my warm car for a horse and buggy,’ ” she said.

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Comments (1)

When children leave remote, strict sects

These stories sound much like those of ultra-orthodox, or Haredi Jews who leave their communities or of extremely strict Christian groups like the one that spawned the Duggar family. A few Haredi refugees have formed a non-profit to take those who flee from a sixth grade education and help them function in the world. All three are part of our country's delicate balancing act between religious freedom and making sure families provide for their children. I wonder how the US will respond when it's a strict, remote Muslim sect keeping women in a "traditional" position.