High school dropout rises to top of field
Associate Professor of Sustainable Agriculture
Family, Youth and Community Sciences
In 1962, she was 14 and caught in an ill-conceived marriage to a man who gave her a farm worker’s life, picking fruit, with no real home, often hungry.
But for a generous high school principal and a Montana university admissions official, who bent their rules to help a girl who showed promise, Mickie Swisher—holder of a doctorate and probably the University of Florida’s best-known organic agriculture expert—would’ve led a much different life.
And their efforts are why she’s a passionate advocate for public education institutions, such as UF.
Swisher grew up in southern Illinois, where her family grew plenty to eat on a 20-acre farm but produced little to sell. Cash came from working in the coal mines, but when the mines shut down, so did her family’s fortunes.
Needing work, the family followed Swisher’s much older brother, who had moved to Washington to open a mattress factory.
When times are hard, teens—like Swisher—often look for a way out, which is how she found herself a 14-year-old, married high school dropout.
Pushed by the adults in her life not to give up on education, she tried to enroll at a Montana high school, and could easily have been turned down. No law would have forced a principal to accept a married girl into the student body. But the principal did, on the promise that Swisher would steer clear of any extracurricular activities.
Later in the year, her teacher asked Swisher if she planned to take the state’s college-entrance exam. No, she answered, she didn’t have the $20 fee and besides, her husband wouldn’t like it.
A few days later, the teacher tried again. She offered to pay the fee if Swisher would reconsider. It didn’t take much persuading, and Swisher took her up on the offer.
She passed the exam, got into Montana State University, and left her doomed marriage behind.
Montana State’s dean of women got Swisher a job, a scholarship and a place to live. As was customary, students were placed with a social group—and Swisher, whose roots were in a place with little diversity to speak of—was assigned to the foreign students club, a twist of fate that would later spur her to travel the world.
It took years to get her first degree, always stopping to work and save for another semester, but she notes that there was always scholarship help. And there was always an educator willing to extend a hand to someone who needed it.
“I think the message is that public institutions in the United States of America work,” she said. “They work even when you’ve made some very stupid decisions. No matter how you foul up … it’s a walloping do-over.”
- Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace — University Photography