Raised in an Amish community in Pennsylvania until the age of 23, Linda Byler, a 4.0 student who graduated from Penn State Shenango in December 2015, knew at a very young age that she would leave the old-order sect to pursue her dreams and live a life that included more than what limited options were available to her.
Growing up Amish meant starting the day milking dairy cattle and harvesting crops. Byler was a middle child, with three sisters and three brothers. Her mother and father were loving parents who taught their children to be hardworking and true to themselves.
“I really did not mind working in the fields,” said Byler. “Sure, it could sometimes be exhausting, but there is something very satisfying about working together as a team and accomplishing a difficult task. My family was very close-knit.”
Like most Amish children, Byler spoke with a German dialect when she was very young. She attended their sect school from first through eighth grade, learning basic English, arithmetic, and geography. According to Byler, most Amish children complete the eighth grade by the age of 14 or 15 and are able to add, subtract, multiply, and read and write in English. In her sect, Byler was taught by older Amish girls who had been taught by their elders in the same manner.
“I have always been a very curious person,” said Byler. “I enjoyed school very much, but what we learned seemed so limited. When my older siblings went to school and brought home their textbooks, I would spend hours reading and looking through them. Once I started school, I learned about children in non-Amish schools who were learning more subjects, and I felt like I was being cheated.”
The sect where Byler was raised held church services in one of the Amish family’s homes where a bishop would preside. The church also included ministers, who supported the bishop, and several families who made up the congregation. As more families became part of the sect, more congregations were formed. In Byler's Amish sect, there were nine churches.
“We would attend church every other week for four or five hours, to hear and learn the Amish doctrine,” said Byler. “Living Amish, however, meant practicing your religion every day, in all ways.”
According to Byler, ordinary activities were meant to reflect religious practice. For example, “Waking up in the morning and putting your Amish clothes on is a way of practicing your religion. It is a very important part of the Amish way of life. I did not believe or feel that sense of importance, and with time, this became a personal problem for me.”
Growing up, Byler never felt any different than people who were not Amish, although she was constantly reminded by the elders of the community that she was different and that she should feel different.
“When I interacted with people outside my religion who attended regular, public schools, it was so painfully obvious that they could learn and become whatever they chose to be, and I was confined to a very limited world. This is when education and learning really became a passion of mine, and I would constantly read the dictionary and the encyclopedia. I was just being the person who I felt I was.”
Leaving her Amish sect was more a progression than a spontaneous decision. Byler’s family had sold their dairy farm when she was 12 or so. When she finished eighth grade, Byler began cleaning houses and dog sitting for some local, non-Amish families. Although there was no rule against working for the English, the leaders of the sect frowned upon her being employed outside their group.
Eventually, Byler began living a double life – wearing English clothes and going out like other, non-Amish teens. During this time, she got to experience a different way of life, which gave her a sense of freedom that she had never experienced.
Being born into an Amish sect does not automatically make a person a member of the church. Membership becomes official when a person decides be baptized, usually between the age of 18 and 21. So eventually, the leaders of the sect gave Byler a choice: Be baptized and become a member of the church, or leave. Because of her strong convictions and knowledge that she could never become a member of the church, Byler decided it was in everyone’s best interest to leave.
“Even though I felt pressure from members of the community to join the church from the time I turned 18 years old, I would not do it,” said Byler. “I did not believe in the doctrine, and so it would be much easier on my family if I never [joined].”
Leaving was very difficult for both Byler and her family. However, she knew these hard decisions had to be made.
“I have always believed in taking responsibility for my actions,” said Byler. “Staying would have given my parents hope that I would one day become a member of the church, which I knew would never happen.”
After leaving her family’s home and the Amish sect, Byler was invited to stay with a family for whom she had worked for several years. Although she had been privy to the English lifestyle, it was not an easy adjustment. Byler felt incapable of being completely independent because she did not have an education.
“When I left home, I knew I had to go back to school,” said Byler. “I wanted to be completely independent and take care of myself.”
Another woman Byler knew before she left the sect helped her to obtain her GED. She took math classes at the Literacy Council and earned her diploma in six months.
After passing her GED, Byler’s next step was to get into college. After taking her ACT, she put an application into Penn State Shenango. She was accepted and began her studies in business in fall 2011 with a goal of graduating with a 4.0 GPA. She also moved to Conneaut Lake with her sister who had left the Amish sect as well.
When she talks about her experience at the Shenango campus, Byler smiles and reflects on her first memories as a student.
“I wasn’t totally comfortable when I first started taking classes,” she said. “I didn’t mind still being an observer and wasn’t interested in opening up. When you tell people you are Amish, they have preconceptions. There were many people, however, that just got to know me and didn’t assume anything.”
Byler soon realized that being just an observer wasn’t working and she knew that she needed to let people know her story.
“I began to understand from my classes and professors that if people knew more about me then they would be more likely to understand me, so I started talking about my past, my present and my future goals.”
The longer Byler was in school, the more comfortable with the professors and other students she became.
“I felt most comfortable in one of my business classes,” said Byler. “The professor made me feel that it was okay not to know certain things, like sports and cultural things. That made me open up about things that I did know about, making me feel like I belonged.”
During her senior year, Byler received an internship at Penn Northwest of Mercer County, where she was able to work on data analysis and market research in order to complete an economic report of Mercer County and prepare a speech and PowerPoint presentation on her findings.
“I very much enjoyed working at Penn Northwest,” said Byler. “I was given a great opportunity to learn, and I met some wonderful people who made my experience there very rewarding. They work very hard to bring economic opportunities to the community, and I was honored to be a part of their team during my internship.”
Byler graduated with highest honors from Penn State last summer with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She received her diploma at this year’s fall commencement ceremony, where she gave the graduating student address.
Following graduation, Byler was hired by First National Bank Corporation as an investment accountant.
“Learning has always been my passion in life,” said Byler. “I am fortunate to have found a position with a company that supports and encourages their employees to learn and develop their skills. F.N.B. Corporation is an exceptional place to work. I have extraordinary mentors who are supportive of my desire to learn as much as I possibly can.”
Asked if it was all worth it? “Yes,” she said. “There are so many beautiful, positive things about the Amish; however, there are some parts that I did not believe in nor could follow. Through all of this, however, I can honestly say that I drew from what my parents taught me at a young age – to work hard, be free, but most of all, stay true to myself. I will always love them for what they taught me, and I know that they would be very proud of my accomplishments.”
Byler is now 29 years old, and, although she occasionally sees her family when she is out in public, she has not visited her home since she left almost six years ago.