Surviving as Married Students


I’m an expert on what it is like to be a student wife; my husband Randy is an expert on what it means to be a student husband. That’s what we were—for seven long, frustrating, beautiful years. Although there were times when we didn’t see how it could possibly work, it did. As we learned step by step about sacrifice and faith and perseverance, we also learned to say with assurance that it is possible not only to survive—but to thrive—as married students.

Let me share the lessons Randy and I learned while we were acquiring our degrees and our first three children.

For us, as for most married students, the biggest problem was prolonged financial insecurity.

Randy and I met at Brigham Young University; he’d been back from his mission for a few weeks. I was a sophomore and sorting out a lot of different ideas about the gospel. Our courtship began with a discussion of faith.

Within a few weeks we were talking about marriage. We knew we were young. We knew there would be enormous sacrifices. My parents would no longer be able to help me with school. We thought about it carefully. We prayed fervently. We waited while I spent six months in France on a semester-abroad program. And with deep feelings of confirmation, we were married in the Salt Lake Temple and launched our adventure together.

It was important to our marriage that we both believed three things: an education was more valuable than money, children were more important than security, and faith in the Lord would be the rudder we steered by. For our first two years, both of us were in school full time. We also both worked part time, lived in a sixty-five-dollar-a-month apartment, and had no car. After school expenses, we had between five and ten dollars a week for food. But education never meant more to us. Discussing what we were studying with each other was stimulating and exciting. We took advantage of every free cultural event we could on campus. We were poor by choice, and I think that made all the difference in the world. We never considered dropping out of school.

But it was hard. In fact, it was awful sometimes. Randy graduated in history that first year and went into public administration. Years later he admitted that he really would have preferred business administration, but that program’s entrance exam required a ten-dollar fee and we just didn’t have it.

Getting my degree posed its challenges, too. During my senior year. I taught at a local Catholic school. One class was advanced placement, preparing them for an examination to see if they could skip freshman English. I loved it, and it was a great reward when every student in the class passed the exam with a score high enough to receive college credit. I was pregnant with our first child that year—and I taught literally till the last minute. Labor unmistakably began at 1:59 and the class ended at 2 P.M. A week later, after Aimee’s birth, I graduated with a B. A. in English and French—and the feeling that somehow we’d done something impossible.

There were lots of reasons for exhilaration then—our beautiful daughter, my degree, and the feeling that we were almost out of the woods. Randy’s master’s degree would only take another year. Our schedules let one of us stay with Aimee all the time between my part-time teaching, his part-time work at a bank, and his nearly full-time graduate classes.

Then suddenly, the challenges multiplied again. Randy, a Canadian citizen, was discharged from his job after someone protested that he was filling a job that an American citizen might have had.

The last semester posed the particular trial of commuting from Salt Lake where we could live in my grandmother’s house rent free. The summer was spent working on a farm in Canada so that Randy, now accepted for a Ph.D. program in city planning, could reenter the United States as an immigrant. We bought a very used car on time (thirty-five dollars a month for payments) and spent the hot sticky end of July crawling slowly towards the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His fellowship was enough for us to live on if we could find inexpensive housing—but that took three months. At last we were accepted into student housing.

Then we had eight months of respite—enough money for food and rent. We were within walking distance of the beautiful campus, with long warm nights and free movies. I played violin with the symphony and discovered that I could make almost all our own clothes.

Then the hard part really started. Randy reluctantly came to the difficult conclusion that he had chosen the wrong profession for him. He wanted to go to law school. All of a sudden the tunnel got longer and the light at the end was further away, but we still had the same commitment to education that we had when we started out. We knew that it would be worth it to us later. So we made the decision.

We moved to Durham, fifteen miles away, so he could attend Duke Law School. Randy was still working at his part-time job at Chapel Hill, which meant that he left at 7 or 8 A.M. I saw him at dinner, then again around midnight. We got through that first year by keeping an unbreakable Friday night date. Often we had only enough to pay the babysitter while we walked around campus and talked—but it kept us sane.

We still had our commitment that children were more important than money, too. Our son Jonathan was born at the end of the first year—on the one day Randy didn’t have an exam. Our third child was born just five weeks before Randy graduated.

The thing that kept us going from the beginning was our third value—woven in, under, and through the importance of building our family and getting our education. We had to have faith that the Lord would take care of us. And he did. No matter how hard things seemed to get, we never stopped feeling in love with each other. We never felt that the Lord had abandoned us. We deeply believed that we were choosing—of our own free will—the course that we were following and that it would be worthwhile. We were building for our future and the Lord was part of it.

Despite our time pressures, we both accepted Church callings and loved serving in them. And we sensed, with humility and appreciation, the Lord’s guidance and blessing. At one point in my student teaching, I became very ill with mononucleosis. If I missed more than a week, I’d have to repeat the course. Randy gave me a blessing and I was back in the classroom within seven days.

As Randy began law school, we prayed for a miracle. We needed a part-time job with flexible hours and enough money that I could stay home with Aimee—an almost impossible list of requirements. During the days that we were praying in faith, the bishop asked Randy for a fifteen-dollar contribution to help pay for some repairs at the chapel. Randy had exactly fifteen dollars in his pocket. It was also all the money we had to live on until he could find a job. He gave it to the bishop. When he told me what he had done, we both felt good in that unmistakable confirming way we had learned to recognize. This was on Sunday. On Monday the University of North Carolina offered Randy a job as a research associate in the City Planning Department, a flexible, part-time, high-paying job.

Another time, we were running out of money fast, but hadn’t paid our tithing. We talked about it and realized that we wouldn’t feel good about getting behind in our tithing so that Sunday we paid it. We’d have more money on Saturday, but by Wednesday I had trouble finding anything to fix the children for lunch. There was no bread. I didn’t even have any yeast or baking powder. Overwhelmed, I called on the Lord: “We gave all our money for tithing,” I said. “Please don’t let us go hungry.” I had just risen from my knees when a knock came at my door. My neighbor was there with a loaf she wanted to give us “because it just won’t fit in my freezer.” With tears in my eyes, I told her she had just answered my prayer. She smiled, pulled out twelve dollars, and asked if they could buy the metal bedframe they’d been borrowing from us. That money tided us over to the end of the week.

We got an education in seven years—not just several degrees. We learned expertise in thrift, ingenuity, and self-reliance. I learned shopping and sewing skills that kept us in school when other students were dropping out. Like many student wives, I discovered ways to augment our family income at home: babysitting, typing, sewing for others, and being a telephone answering service were some. A friend baked and sold whole wheat bread to a waiting list of customers. Two friends and I rented a booth in a farmer’s market and sold crafts and baked goods there each Saturday morning.

We learned where and how to obtain financial aid from university, community, and government organizations. When our families and friends offered money, we learned to accept it without feeling guilty, if it was a gift, and to be realistic about when we could pay it back if it was a loan. We also learned that each family’s financial situation is a private matter and that comparing our situation to that of other student families accomplished nothing—whether we had the most money or the least.

We learned to enjoy all the benefits of being students—the free movies, dances, sports events, symphonies, and dramas. We learned to make each moment with ourselves and our children really count. We learned to stay in love. We learned faith.

And we learned that personal revelation was the most important factor of all, that only the Holy Ghost could tell us what was right for us. To know that we had had the Lord’s help in making our decisions—about marrying each other, about our children, about our education—meant, that the light at the end of the tunnel never disappeared.

[photo] Photography by Jed A. Clark

Susan Sperry Spackman, homemaker, teaches a Relief Society class in her ward in Irvine, California.