Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth: Keara Sternberg

The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation has established the Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth, for writers aged 19 years and younger currently living or attending school in the state of Vermont.

The first-place prize of $1,500 and the runner-up prize of $500 are awarded for the article, essay or poem under 1,000 words that best answers the prompt of this year’s contest: “Is higher education worth the cost to you and your family?” In letters during his youth Calvin Coolidge wrote often seeking money from his father. In these letters many of Coolidge’s expenses are related to his schooling – first at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont and then at Amherst College in Massachusetts. In other letters, Coolidge and his father discussed the possibility of Calvin attending law school. Ultimately the family ended up deciding Calvin would “read the law” as a clerk in the office of Hammond & Field in Northampton, Massachusetts, thereby skipping the cost of law school. Students were asked to use the letters of the young Calvin Coolidge and other Coolidge-related sources to compare and contrast their situation today to that of Calvin Coolidge in his time.

The essays, which will appear in The Reader in the coming weeks, were written by nine exceptional Vermont students who were selected as semi-finalists and finalists for the 2015 Calvin Prize. The Prize is sponsored by the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, and made possible by the generous support of National Life Group.

Submission by Keara Sternberg Shaftsbury, VT

Calvin Coolidge was lucky to be born into a generation in which the cost of higher education was six times less than mine. Regardless of this advantage, Coolidge’s letters reveal that he still struggled with his family to afford both his tuition and the extra, miscellaneous fees that seemed to consistently reemerge. Coolidge famously said that, “there is not [a] contemporary effort of greater promise or more propitious than the increasing endowment that has been sought and secured by our institutions of higher learning” (Coolidge 10). While this statement may have been more valid during his presidency, I find it difficult to resonate his words with my stark realities. I believe the cost of higher education (in my case, approximately $48,000 per academic year) is a stressful, financial burden on my family, a distraction to my work ethic and time management, and a barrier to my personal ambitions. Even though a bachelor’s degree could make me a more marketable employee and/or provide me with a more promising financial future, it ultimately mires the future I want for myself and the fiscal stability of my family.

In choosing a college for enrollment, I was obligated to negotiate and discuss my financial options with my parents. Unlike Coolidge, I had the opportunity to accept the full-tuition Green and Gold Scholarship to the University of Vermont. In Coolidge’s case, his father did not want him to accept any scholarships because “if [Calvin] didn’t make good, [his father] didn’t want to feel that [Calvin had] used someone else’s money for nothing” (Gilbert 9). On the contrary, my parents and I were ecstatic for my financial opportunity because we knew it would significantly alleviate the approaching cost of graduate school. Luckily, my parents started investing in my education fund well before I was even born, so our negotiations did not automatically exclude more expensive college offers. In the end, I decided to enroll at Skidmore College because I felt that the sociocultural atmosphere was better suited to help me succeed. As I apply for endless scholarships throughout the year however, I constantly feel regretful for my decision not to take better advantage of the scholarship UVM offered me. Because of the financial challenges my parents are now facing, I recognize that even if the academic experience at Skidmore is worth the cost to me, it may not be to my family or my future overall.

In dealing with the expense(s) of college while attending college, I have experienced similar setbacks to Coolidge. In letter one, he wrote to his father that living with a roommate would lessen his room and board expenses from $4.25 to $4.00 a week. If another student was willing, Coolidge was eager to save money strategically in this way. Planning for my second year of college, I was eager to make the same sacrifice in order to save my parents as much money as possible, even though I would personally prefer to live alone. Moreover, Coolidge wrote in his second letter that his job kept him busy to the extent that he did not have as much time as he would have liked to write his essays and orations. His second letter illuminates how easily the cost of higher education can deter students from focusing completely on their studies. As I have also experienced, the cost of education has required me to work two full-time jobs throughout the school year in order to pay my respective bills and help my family as they help me pay for college. While these jobs have certainly helped me develop my resume, they have limited my valuable study time, opportunities for office hour visits, and (sometimes) my capacity to recuperate after a stressful day or week. I consider myself an efficient time manager and an ambitious student, but the physical and hourly demands of two jobs can make it very difficult to maintain both of these qualities.

Aside from these explicit hardships, Coolidge was implicitly forced by his circumstances to “read the law” as a clerk instead of pursuing his family’s dream for him to attend law school. Likewise, I feel threatened by the cost of higher education to make sacrifices against my personal ambitions in order to ensure that my education and future occupation are beneficial to my parents’ investment. As of now, I want to pursue a major in the social sciences (either sociology or anthropology), but I find my family, and parents specifically, discouraging me because they know how little demand there is in the workforce for these areas of study. Even while my interests are still being explored and tested, I feel as if my future has been predetermined for me by the cost of my education. Even if I wanted to choose my own major, I feel obligated to pursue a degree that is more marketable and more likely to guarantee long-term, financial security. I cannot say how my family would react to my personal ambitions if I were attending the University of Vermont and the cost of graduate school was not as exigent, but I am certain that the cost of higher education will always weigh heavily on my parents’ wishes for me and the decisions I willingly make or feel manipulated to follow.

As I have grown up and matured, I have also realized how important it is to give back to my parents in however many ways I can. In Coolidge’s fourth letter, he gave his father a gift (money) and his example mirrors the actions I have pledged to also make. My college education is overly expensive but necessary in my parents’ eyes, so I hope that I can find, acquire, and use a return that is “of more value than money” to my benefit and especially theirs. Even if the cost of my education forces me to modify my interests, I want to make it worthwhile for my parents.