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My favorite coffee mug is how I found Presidio Graduate School. Well, really it was the smooth, inky crinkle of newspaper wrapped around that handmade mug I had found at a small music festival held on a Mennonite farm in Illinois 7 years prior to the day I was wrapping it for a move to a new home. In a roundabout way, that’s more or less the story. The details of my graduate school journey started much earlier, earlier than finding the mug I wrapped with a New York Times edition containing the legendary quote of “If you want to change the world, go to Presidio Graduate School.” It started with a sense of wanting more than the music industry and bartending, wanting more than what a status-quo corporate job could offer, wanting more than living to pay bills, and wanting a purpose. My journey to and through graduate school is a significant quest of sorts, but it’s also more than that.

Let me start over. I had grabbed an issue of the NYT from my local cafe that morning on my coffee run, which I regularly did for the crossword puzzles, but also needed on this day to prepare for a move from East Nashville to North Nashville. I stood in my tiny, lopsided apartment kitchen mindlessly achieving the monotonous practice of mug wrapping. Looking down, I noticed the section of the paper dedicated to reviewing the best graduate schools in America for different industries: technology, law, business, medical, etc. Even though I didn’t even have an undergraduate degree, having dropped out of college 4 times in my 20s, I was curious enough to unwrap my favorite handmade mug to read the final page. This last page had an honorable mention of other grad schools worth knowing, with Presidio in the category of the best school for changing the world.

Up until this moment, I didn’t know sustainability was a career option. I read the small paragraph over and over and over, digesting a moment I knew was a turning point but feeling like it was bigger than I could understand. I felt like someone had just handed me a clue on how to live life meaningfully, and I needed to fully interpret the instructions to move forward. Which is what I did. A week later I was enrolled in a state school 45 minutes away from my home to complete my undergraduate degree because I figured that would be necessary if I suddenly wanted an MBA. I signed up for accounting, chemistry, algebra, a southern gothic literature class, and finance.

One and a half months into starting my bachelor’s, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given two months to live. As I was driving home from class one day my father called me and told me to pull over (even though I was on a five-lane highway) because he needed to talk. So, I did. So, we cried on the phone in a space that felt in between past, present, and future. Like being stuck on the side of the road when headed toward a destination. I was told he’d pass away during my week of final exams. My reaction was to tell everyone they were wrong because in what felt like my genetic make-up, being a replica of my father himself, I knew he’d live to be 70 which was 11 months away.

My first phone call with Presidio admissions was a year and a half after finding the New York Times article. It was almost a year after my father’s diagnosis. It was a week after I had moved back to Nashville after moving home during the summer break to take care of my father with at-home hospice while taking online classes from a distance for the fall semester. My call was with the former admissions ambassador Connor O’Farrell who was also a current Presidio student. Connor listened as I told her my life story (so far) of how I had been in and left a cult, struggled with substance abuse as a coping mechanism, bouts of homelessness, and a general feeling that my life could never fit in a box because it was “asymmetrical.” I told her about my passion for land stewardship and caring for all people regardless of the details of their lives. She listened patiently as I shared my imposter syndrome. She told me that I was exactly the kind of person Presidio wanted. She told me I had nothing to fear and the best thing I could do was continue to move forward, in all things, not just my application.

I was beaming from a call with a school I had dreamt about for over a year, a school that just told me “yes, this is possible,” that there was a path before me, a North Star, leading the way to a future I really believed in. Up until that point, grad school had felt like a faraway dream, something I was slowly moving toward but was always an oasis on the horizon. My admissions call challenged my old fears by turning them into new adventures. Being close with my parents, I wanted to share the news with them even though I’d be home again for a visit in two days. I just couldn’t wait.

I rang my mother’s cell phone and told her everything. Everything Connor had said to me, everything I had said, everything I had thought about and felt before, during, and after the call. “Can I tell Dad?!” Mom told me I was on speakerphone and he had heard everything, all the words, thoughts, emotions. She also told me he hadn’t spoken anything in two days, and that he wasn’t really able to speak much (even though I had just seen him three days earlier and told him I’d be back in five days, much had changed). Again, she encouraged me to continue speaking, insisting that he could hear me. “I love you, Dad!” I said cheerfully and hopefully. There was a slight noise, a pause, and my mother asking if my dad could “say it again” when I heard a tiny voice squeak out “I love you, too.” Those were the last words my father ever spoke.

My dad’s passing is hard to describe on an emotional level, but one thing has always felt true to me and that is I believe he finally felt safe enough to leave because he finally felt like I would be ok. In the last year of my father’s life, he continually expressed his desire for my mother and me to be ok. He didn’t want to leave us because he wanted to make sure we’d be taken care of. He also always wanted me to go to school and to have a future that meant something to me. Without any hesitation, I thoroughly believe my conversation with Connor that day built a bridge of peace in my father’s heart to let him know I would be taken care of, by a school community, by my future career, and by my love of living a life I could be proud of.

Four months later, I booked a flight from Nashville to San Francisco to do an in-person class visit and attend the end of the year graduate Capstone presentations. I was incredibly impressed and felt a kindred spirit with the classes, professors, and students I encountered. Most of all I was blown away by the Capstone presentations. They were inspiring and hopeful. It was incredible to watch as students presented viable, sustainable solutions to real-world problems. The Capstone was also a chance to show my mom and nephew, who had joined me, how wonderful this school is. Lastly, at this event, I had the chance to share with Connor the story of how her call had officially changed my life and paved the way for me to believe in something bigger for myself and the world.

It took me two more years to finally enroll in Presidio Graduate School. Even after enrolling, which included writing an essay I was very proud of and an interview I managed to get through in the midst of a migraine that had me sick to my stomach, I still considered deferring. I was terrified that I didn’t know enough about Excel, or maybe my undergraduate business classes weren’t enough, or the internship I did for the city of Nashville in Waste Reduction wasn’t enough. I was afraid that I wasn’t enough. The director of admissions told me the choice was up to me but asked if she could offer some advice, to which I consented. “You’ll always feel like there’s more you can do to be ready.” This advice is true about everything—school, relationships, final papers, having kids, life. The point was that I could learn all the things I didn’t feel I had enough of at school. That was the point of school!

Orientation took place days before my first residency weekend, which meant my initial trip to the Bay Area as a commuter student would last two weeks. I felt both very prepared and very underprepared. Leaving for school felt like the worst timing as my relationship with my partner had begun to fall apart weeks earlier and I was leaving for the airport the same time he was driving states away for a family funeral. It was the best timing for me to find myself as well as a sense of strength as an individual and in a community. After the first two days of orientation, I felt very connected to my cohort: C31 (C=cohort, 31=31 semesters that Presidio  has been in operation). Over half the reason to go to grad school is to meet like-minded people who will be in your corner cheering you on for the rest of your life.

So much has happened in the two years since I started at Presidio Graduate School. My classes were mind-altering and life-changing in the best ways. Some of the most important friendships I’ve ever had are with my classmates. The first year of school I was a full-time student while working full-time until Covid-19 ended my job for months. My romantic partnership did end but turned into a wonderful friendship. I went to school part-time for my second year, partly because I really hoped to do an in-person Capstone presentation. I moved from Nashville to West Virginia to live on the very edge of a national forest to breathe fresh air and to learn how nature speaks so that I can be a better listener.

This program has changed my life. It’s introduced me to the research I want to dedicate my life to. It introduced me to people I want to dedicate my life to. It’s also slowly turned me more into my father, who had been a local politician very involved in localized environmental justice. He would always say, “Heather, you have no right to complain about something you won’t do anything about.” This saying is why he became involved with politics in the first place. My father also hoarded newspapers, which I try very hard not to do with local West Virginia papers I use for writing other kinds of papers for my MPA classes. There’s one newspaper I won’t’ get rid of though. I still have that piece of New York Times that led me to Presidio Graduate School, and even though it’s been smoothed out from sitting in a folder of important keepsakes for years, it’s still slightly wrinkled (textured, really) from the moment it spent wrapped around my favorite handmade mug.

Sharing a smile with my friend and newly graduated Amelia Ahl

Ready to join talented students like Heather and embark on your own journey to transformation? There’s no better time to make a change—for yourself and for the world. Learn more about our MBA, MPA, Dual Degree, and Certificate programs, and then start a conversation with us!

About the Author / Heather Openshaw

As the owner of a long-standing vintage clothing business, Heather has years of experience in customer service. She formerly worked with the City of Nashville’s Public Works Waste Reduction Department to develop a county-wide recycling audit program. She is currently a dual MBA/MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School with a focus on accessible and sustainable lifestyle design. She lives in Davis, WV.

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