Miami Stories

Miami-Dade Junior College student recalls when 18-year-olds got right to vote

Karin Stahl in August 1971.
Karin Stahl in August 1971. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

In May 1971, I was all set to graduate from Miami Central High School. I had won awards in social science, English, typing, shorthand and office machines, along with a trip in the “Speak Up for America Essay Contest.” I planned to join classmates working at Southern Bell. My sister Vickie, who took care of me after our parents’ deaths, had other ideas.

“Why not go to Miami-Dade Junior College?” She had already sent off an application for me to receive a veteran’s benefits scholarship of $40.00 a month, which would cover the $125.00-a-semester college fees, with a little left over to buy books.

I sensibly decided on a two-year Associate in Secretarial Science degree. Students had to carry a cardboard imitation briefcase engraved with “The Secretary on the Job.” Supplies were a round typewriter eraser with brush, white-out, onion-skin carbon-sets, shorthand pads and correction tape. Required courses were four semesters each of Gregg Shorthand and typing, along with a blend of science, humanities and philosophy courses. We utilized the cutting-edge Burrough’s calculator, 10-key adders and mimeograph. We were required to take a one-credit “Personal Improvement for the Career Woman,” based on a book by Edith Zipp, in which we studied personal hygiene, dress, hairdos, restaurant etiquette and job interviews.

About 40 of us girls were in our close-knit major. There were no boys in our class! One professor, Roslyn Reich, stood out with her inventiveness. She formed “Secretarial Services,” a free service for professors who wanted to sample our dictation product. We had our own company logo, a student’s illustration of a smiling shorthand pad holding a pen. Each student would visit a professor, take shorthand and type it. Upon completion, the professors would call Mrs. Reich and tell her how we did. We would receive extra credit if the carbon-set showed no corrections or erasures. I would be super-careful so as to have that perfect onion-skin copy!

Meanwhile seismic changes were taking place on our campus! The college bookstore was now stocking Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, and Any Woman Can! by David Reuben. Cosmopolitan magazine, with a nude Burt Reynolds in its centerfold, was the bookstore’s hottest seller. But the biggest changes came with the 26th Constitutional Amendment. In 1971, 18-year-olds were given the right to vote! Former Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey explained its enormous impact far better than I can.

In March 1972, during his brief run for the presidency, Humphrey visited our campus. He exclaimed: “Of course I’d like for you to vote for me, but the most important is that you go to your polls and vote!” He added that college students today are now far more empowered, as record numbers could now afford college and those over 18 are now qualified to vote rather than waiting to be 21. He added that previously leaders could perhaps brush off opinions of 18-to-20 year olds in college as underage, but today’s generation could use their voices to advance ideas and social reforms more than ever. We were especially privileged to witness history as both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions were to be in Miami Beach during summer 1972, he said.

Registering to vote was very easy as the college conveniently set up voter’s registration booths throughout campus. I soon was proudly carrying my very own voter’s registration card! And on election day, volunteers clucked over me like a mother hen, showing me how to use the old-fashioned levers and curtains to complete the vote. I had the momentous decision to choose between George McGovern or Richard Nixon as our next president!

I was so lucky to have been taught a creative writing class by James Lee Burke, the bestselling author of the Dave Robicheaux series and winner of two Edgar Awards. Mr. Burke taught us a new concept, writer’s anxiety. He explained that in the creative process we often unleash innermost feelings, and reveal to our readers our true selves. Fear of ridicule or rejection is perfectly natural but often causes many writers to give up. But he added, “Just hunker down, write freely, rise above it and be yourself!” He also taught us to let our thoughts run free and even over-write, as you can always edit and revise. I remind myself of this advice every time I submit an article for publication.

By the end of 1973, by greatly increasing my course-load, I had completed both Associate in Arts and Associate in Science degrees. Throughout the decades, I used my secretarial degree to work in law firms and insurance companies. I used my writing skills to compose my own letters, pleadings, interoffice memos and submitted articles for company newsletters. At age 43, after 22 years of working and attending night school, I finally received a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Barry University.

Forty-five years have passed since I started at what’s now called Miami Dade College. They don’t say “Secretarial Science” anymore. New titles include “Legal Office Specialist,” “Office Management Specialist” and “Paralegal Studies.” Thankfully, today’s young people don’t struggle with carbon paper, smudging, erasers and white-out. I so envy their good fortune to have been born at a time when they can contemplate the limitless boundaries of knowledge and communications via today’s computer technology. And I hope they will take Vice-President Humphrey’s advice and use their enormous powers to study the issues and candidates and make their voices heard at the polls this election year!

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