So You’re Not Going to Harvard?

My dad emigrated from Croatia many years ago at the age of 14. He worked in the steel mills of United States Steel’s American Bridge Company in Ambridge, PA, 18 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Until his retirement at age 65, he worked his whole life as a laborer, never achieving much of a formal education. However, he was wise and possessed strong common sense. In the small house where my parents, two brothers, two sisters and I lived, the mantra was that in the United States everyone had the opportunity to build a better life through education and hard work. Like so many parents, my mother and dad worked very hard so that we’d have that opportunity.

From early childhood I knew I wanted to be an artist, and I pursued that goal. As a senior in high school I applied to and was accepted at two of what were then considered the best art schools in the country, Pratt Institute and the Art Students League of New York. Having applied and being accepted at both you can imagine my joy, excitement and anticipation of attending one of these prestigious institutions. But it was not to be. My dad pointed out that we could not afford the “whole package” and that it was best I pick any school in Pittsburgh, where I could live at home and bus to school. He said I had excellent choices, including Pitt, Carnegie Tech, Duquesne University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. If I applied and was accepted to one of these institutions, he and my mother would cover the tuition.

I was very upset and pleaded to go to Pratt, my first choice. My father stuck to his guns and insisted that if he and my mother were to support my continued education, it would be through one of the Pittsburgh institutions. It was at that time, in his own brusque manner, that he shared some words of wisdom which altered my outlook—words which I want to share with our young people today. He said, “If you want to learn, you’ll learn. If you want to succeed, you’ll succeed, regardless of the school you go to.” He went on to say, “Even in the finest of schools, no professor is going to open his head and drop his brains into your head. You’re the one who has to seek and strive and learn and build your brain. And you can do that at any quality school if YOU put your mind to it. YOU are the one who will determine your future and successes—not a professor.”

It was a little crude, but I understood the message my dad imparted and took it to heart. I went on to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Would I have had a better art education at Pratt Institute? Possibly. In fact, probably. But within ten years of graduating from the Art Institute, I was creative director of the Rust Craft Corporation in Dedham, MA, responsible for a staff of 125 creative personnel. One of the art directors reporting to me was a graduate of Pratt Institute. Three years later I was appointed Vice President and sat on the executive staff, along with two graduates of Harvard. It was then that I best understood the wisdom of a hardened steel worker with no formal education.

If you’re a young student and have the opportunity to study at Harvard or go to the likes of Pratt Institute, you’re obviously very bright and very fortunate. If you’re a young student attending a “lesser-rated” school, you too are bright and fortunate. You can seek, strive and learn—and enjoy every opportunity for success. No one but you determines the boundaries of your education and success, regardless of the school you attend.

The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.       – Ralph Waldo Emerson