I know very few people I grew up with who are doing what they thought they would be doing at 16 or 17 years old. I tell young people, ‘Go to a state school, figure out what you really want to do.’ We’re so fortunate in Massachusetts to have the public higher education system we have. We’re a leader in the country.
State Rep. Susannah M. Whipps looks at the long and winding route to her degree in interdisciplinary studies and sees a voyage defined by curiosities followed and an imagination well-nourished.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever had a clear path,” said Whipps, who was torn by a calling to work for her family business in Athol with following her own aspirations.
For a while, she chose the latter, studying culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University, and later working at her own restaurants. “I loved the restaurant business, but it’s hard and you have no personal life,” she said.
She began looking at other options, including taking courses at Fitchburg State, first in occupational education. Yet she couldn’t resist sampling other items from the collegiate menu. “I took a class on the Bible and literature, which just sounded interesting,” she said. “I took courses out of a desire to learn, not in pursuit of any endgame. If I saw something I liked, I went for it. With an affordable school like Fitchburg State, you could do that.”
More than 10 years after her first course at Fitchburg State, Whipps had accrued nearly enough credits for a bachelor’s degree, but her coursework spanned disciplines and departments. “I called Fitchburg State and said I wanted to finish, and they were so great,” she said, describing the formation of her interdisciplinary studies degree. “They said, ‘Absolutely, welcome back.’ That was so meaningful to me.”
Whipps said she sees education as a journey, not a destination. “I know very few people I grew up with who are doing what they thought they would be doing at 16 or 17 years old,” she said. “I tell young people, ‘Go to a state school, figure out what you really want to do.’ We’re so fortunate in Massachusetts to have the public higher education system we have. We’re a leader in the country and we feel education is important.”
In 2012 she graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, concentrating on occupational education, history and sociology.
Already active in her community as a member of the Board of Selectmen, Whipps turned her ambitions to the state Legislature. She was elected in 2014, ousting the incumbent.
“There’s so much learning in this job,” Whipps said. “I feel as a lifelong learner that Fitchburg State inspired that in me. If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room, and you’ve got to move on.”
Whipps feels she has found the ideal place for her to make a positive impact on her community and in her district, including advocacy for investment in public education.
“I don’t look at this job as a stepping stone,” Whipps said. “I expect someday to be back working with my family again, but right now I’m glad I’m in the spot I’m in. You end up in the right spot at the right time, and I think everything has worked the way it was supposed to. Like during my college years, I guess I’m just non-traditional.”
This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Contact, the university's alumni magazine.