Simple twists of fate propelled Joyce Earickson toward the study of Italian, then English, divinity and psychology. She has taught Italian, French, English, and world religions; comforted families of those who were critically injured and gravely ill; and worked with autistic and disabled children.
While her career’s focus has varied, her goals have remained constant: teaching, helping others and leading a meaningful life.
“I’ve done so many things that frightened me to my core, but I’ve done them anyway,” Earickson said, noting that her career path required several student loans and did not yield high-paying work.
“Part of me is very drawn to the life of luxury, but another part of me is repelled by it. I need to be making a contribution to the world at some level.”
By several measures, that mission has been accomplished.
Earickson earned her bachelor’s and master’s in Italian language and literature in 1969 and 1971, respectively, from the University of Colorado Boulder. She became intrigued by Italian in 1965, while her family was living in Australia. Her father, a Navy man, worked with immigrants, many of them Italian
Earickson had graduated from high school in Lakeside, Calif., before the family moved to Perth, Australia. There, she completed a fifth year of high school, because she was too young to attend the University of Western Australia.
After a year in Perth, she and her family returned to the United States via the SS Marconi, an Italian ship that sailed from Australia to Italy. Earickson recalls having nothing to do on the ship except play ping-pong or take lessons in Italian that were offered onboard.
“I got off in Naples as a young woman, and I could speak Italian, Earickson recalled. This was exhilarating. Later, she found herself at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she majored in Italian. She spent her final year of study at the University of Bologna, where her immersion in Italian language and culture deepened.
In Italy, she dated a young man who spoke no English, and her roommates confided their life troubles to her, in Italian. “It was so strange to have the grammar book come alive. … having real people speak to me.”
After she earned her master’s in Italian literature at CU Boulder, a professor asked her what she planned to do with her career. She wasn’t entirely sure.
“It was the ‘60s,” she said, adding that many college students were not materialistic.
I think I’ve had to come to terms with wondering if everybody might have a wandering life like I’ve had … where they start out in something and then it morphs into something else and leads here and there.”
Earickson’s father, still toiling in Australia, also asked her what she was going to do with the degree. She replied, “Dad, it doesn’t matter. I love this subject.”
After teaching French (her minor at CU Boulder) at a private high school and working odd jobs, Earickson returned to study at San Diego State University to get a bachelor’s degree in English. She taught English in a San Diego County public high school for about seven years before asking the principal if she could start a program in Italian.
She taught ninth and tenth graders, who “tend to be a little more discipline-challenged,” she said. “But really for me the fun came in (teaching) Italian.”
As she approached the age of 40, she was feeling “restless and a little burned out” on high-school teaching and felt that she “needed something more meaningful.”
While on a three-year leave from the school, she earned an advanced degree in theology and started working as a chaplain in a hospital. That work was both meaningful and challenging. She found herself attending to families whose loved ones were in trauma-care units—patients critically injured in motorcycle accidents and children who were dying.
“It was too intense for me, and I came home just drained.”
The chaplains who were most effective were able to be very empathetic and also maintain enough professional composure to make phone calls and the like for families. “That I could do and did do but I also found myself so grief-stricken that it was hard to maintain a professional stance,” Earickson said.
Pastoral counseling seemed a better fit, but that required a doctorate. Working at night for 10 years, she earned a doctorate in psychology. She landed a job at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which sought instructors to teach world religions.
Working for the military struck her as “strange,” given that Earickson was “desperately, desperately against the war in Vietnam.” For seven years at Pendleton, Earickson taught 12 different world religions to Marines, many of whom bore terrible wounds.
During this time, she also worked with autistic and disabled children.
Earickson has spent time in Guatemala, vacationed in Italy and traveled when she could. As a young woman, she ascended Ayers Rock, also known as Uluru, a sacred formation to aboriginal Australians. Later, she climbed Longs Peak and Mount Sneffels in Colorado.
Having experienced these places and visited sites such as Jerusalem in Israel, Assisi in Italy, and Iona of Scotland, she became enamored of pilgrimages.
“I want to go to physically as well as spiritually beautiful places around the Earth if I can stay in good health and be financially able to do this.”
Had she augmented her degree in Italian with a more marketable degree in the ‘60s, she could have been more financially stable, she acknowledged.
“But I didn’t, and I followed my heart,” she said, adding that she doesn’t have regrets.
At the same time, “I think I’ve had to come to terms with wondering if everybody might have a wandering life like I’ve had … where they start out in something and then it morphs into something else and leads here and there.”