Growing up on Long Island, Zachary Linderer was obsessed with science.
He grew up a Jehovah's Witness, and like many others in the faith, he was homeschooled his whole life. By the time he got to high school, Linderer knew that he wanted to go to college for something in the sciences: physics, oceanography, something in that realm. But he realized at a young age that wasn't going to be a possibility.
"I knew that it wasn't going to be encouraged that I get an education," Linderer says. "My dad told me that he knew people who were into science, and it dragged them right out of the organization, right out of the truth."
The organization that Linderer is talking about is the Watchtower: the governing organization of Jehovah's Witnesses. The view that higher education is spiritually dangerous is very common among Witnesses, and for Linderer, it meant that his parents wouldn't support him going to college.
Still, he knew that he wanted to study, so he decided to keep his ambitions a secret and figure out a way to attend on his own. Close to high school graduation he let his plans slip to a couple of his Jehovah's Witness friends. Word got back to his family.
"When they found out, my dad and uncles made fun of me," Linderer recalls. "It really squashed my hopes. I knew I wasn't going to get their support, and without their support, it was really obvious to me at the time that I wasn't going to be able to do it on my own."
With only a few credits left before high school graduation, Linderer dropped out. He had no prospects of education beyond high school, so getting the diploma seemed pointless. He struggled to find work after moving out of his parents' home, which eventually led him to get certified as an electrician. Still, that longing to study science haunted him.
"I think I had that feeling at 17 years old or so that that was what I wanted to be, what I needed to be," Linderer says. "There's been this hole ever since then."
From the top down
Linderer's story is a common one for children raised as Jehovah's Witnesses. Pew Research shows that only 9 percent of Witnesses get undergraduate degrees. That's well below the national average of 30.4 percent and the lowest of any faith group. The likely reason for this trend is the religion's official warnings against college.
Witness leadership declined to speak to NPR for this story, but Anthony Morris III, a member of the governing body of Jehovah's Witnesses, outlines the organization's policies clearly in a video on the organization's website. The Watchtower Organization discourages higher education for two basic reasons.
First, higher education is spiritually dangerous. In the video, Morris warns parents that "the most intelligent and eloquent professors will be trying to reshape the thinking of your child, and their influence can be tremendous." He goes on to say that continual association with non-believers in an academic setting can "erode thinking and convictions."
Witness leadership also discourages higher education because they believe it's a waste of time. Jehovah's Witnesses have been predicting the end of the world since the religion's founding at the end of the 19th century. By their rationale, time in college would be better spent out on the streets, converting persons to become Witnesses.
Morris makes it very clear that the Watchtower organization doesn't discourage education, but rather secular education.
"If parents and young ones are motivated to pursue divine education," Morris says, "the quest for higher secular education becomes less and less of an issue."
More material problems
The lack of higher education can translate into more tangible problems for Witnesses. Pew research also shows that Jehovah's Witnesses are among the lowest earners of any religious group.
Amber McGee falls in that category. She grew up a Witness in rural Texas. Like Linderer, she was home-schooled from a young age. Her parents wanted to protect her and her siblings from worldly influences. That decision wasn't easy on her family.
"My mom, who was supposed to be our home school teacher, was not capable of doing it, emotionally mentally," McGee recalls. "She had three young children. She was by herself, very far from family, and even grocery stores and that sort of thing."
McGee's mother never finished high school herself, and the pressure of trying to teach three children was too much for her. She gave up on homeschooling them when McGee and her twin were in third grade. The kids were forced to fend for themselves using workbooks. When she had trouble with a subject, McGee says she'd just pass her work off to her twin, and vice-versa. This left both of them with significant learning disabilities.
McGee says that when she got excited about a subject, her mother would often shut her down. "I told her how much I found history fun," McGee says. "She told me, 'Well, that's not important because it doesn't have any bearing on your future, and it won't be any use in the paradise." This "paradise" refers to the heaven on earth that Witnesses believe is coming after the end of the world.
McGee barely graduated high school. In mathematics, she never made it past the seventh grade level. That's made life difficult for McGee. She's now 34 years old, and the most she's made in a year is about $14,000.
McGee and her family left the Witnesses about a year ago. They're doing better now financially, but it's still far from what McGee had hoped for her life. She had wanted to be nurse growing up, but with no support from her parents and very little education, she didn't feel it was possible. Today, she struggles with that same feeling that Linderer talked about: the feeling of being robbed of something. It's a sentiment shared by most of the more than 100 ex-Jehovah's Witnesses that I heard from while reporting this story.
Still, McGee says she isn't letting that feeling stop her from retaking her life.
"I was taught very, very young to stop dreaming, to not have dreams," McGee says, "that you'll never be a famous person or a doctor or a nurse. It's not possible. So now, as an adult, at 34 years old, I'm learning to start dreaming again."
Even if it's too late for some of her dreams, she definitely hopes to pass them on to her children.