Recent conversations in the media have focused on the true value of higher education. Presidential candidates have added the topic to their political platforms, promising reduced costs or free college education to potential voters. With claims that a college degree is the new high school diploma, it’s an important issue for parents and students alike.
My parents emphasized the importance of higher education, believing it was a necessary stepping stone to their growth and success. As people of color, my mother stressed this importance to her children at every opportunity, telling us that “your education is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you.”
My mother is a strong, resilient black woman who remembers the challenges of living in the segregated south. She grew up in Burlington, North Carolina in the 1960’s, about 11 miles outside of Greensboro.
Living in that part of the south meant the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement were right outside her front door. My mother talked about the students who conducted sit-ins at the local Woolworths, a five and dime store that was segregated. These sit-ins were some of the first in the Civil Rights Movement. When we visit her home town, she will point to all the places she was not allowed to go. “I was never allowed in that shop… I was not allowed to eat there.” My mother discovered that education was a way to challenge the establishment of segregation and inequality in the United States.
My mother attended Shaw University in the 60’s. Shaw is the oldest historically black college in the South, founded in 1865. Her grandmother was adamant that she get an education so that she could improve her life. There were not many avenues for success in the south for people of color before the Civil Rights Movement. This was especially true for black women of the time. They fought for the opportunity to become teachers and educators as society gradually defined schooling as “women’s work.” My aunts were some of the first women in our family to receive degrees in education. My mother is proud that she comes from a family that values higher education.
The availability of federal student loans allowed my mother to attend college. She recalls frantically trying to find a way to fund her tuition in her junior and senior years. She did not qualify for any private loans, so the federal student loan program became her only option. “Student loans were not advertised like they are today; we had to seek them out on our own.”
My mother notes that she would not be where she is today without having access to student loans. “I grew up in a loving home, but my father died when I was young… my mother had her own priorities. I was raised by my grandmother. She was the one who chose Shaw University for me. She would walk to work to clean houses and wash white people’s clothes so that I could get through college. When the money ran out, that’s when we found out about student loans.”
My mother eventually graduated with a degree in business and went to work for the federal government in Washington, DC. She started out as a Grade 3 clerk typist at the Department of Education. Over her thirty year career she was able to work her way up to become the Director of Human Resources in the Department of Education.
“I started out as a little girl from a segregated school to a senior executive staff member of the United States Government. I got a job as a Grade 3 typist for ten white men, and they were good to me. After they saw my work they would say, ‘you have a college degree, why are you doing this work?’ and ‘you should take the civil service exam.’ It hurts me to say this, but they noticed I was not inarticulate or stupid. The white people started asking me ‘why did you not take this exam?’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. ‘You have more potential than typing and answering phones.’ The lady who hired me didn’t even tell me about it. I could have started out as a grade three typist. They started giving me more professional things to do, and I moved up to a personnel clerk. I went from a Grade 4 to a Grade 5. Once I took the exam… I zoomed. Grade 5 to Grades 7 through 15 and then senior executive. I worked my butt off. Paid if off by ‘75 because back then you were not able to get a house loan and have debt of any kind. I did very well in life. My husband and mother were proud of me.”
She has fond memories of her employment and talks about all of the interesting people she met as a result. “I swore in a number of people including Roderick ‘Rod’ Paige and Richard Riley. I am also friends with Betty Currie and Senator John Lewis.” She has met the last five presidents and won the Presidential Rank Award twice, the highest civilian honor. All of which she would not have been able to achieve without her college education and by extension, her student loans. “When someone tells you they can’t make it, that’s bullshit. It’s important to have an open door and open mind policy.”
When I first attended college, it was a frightening experience. My initial major was Environmental Science because I wanted to “save the world.” Throughout my time in school, I learned that if I wanted to make any dent in the world, I would need to understand myself and the people around me. Sociology became my next major, and I received a Bachelor’s in the field. I would never trade my Bachelor’s for anything. My time at Shepherd University was critical to my identity. It gave me the skills to take care of myself and my community.
I eventually decided to get my Master’s in Social Work from WVU. It was not an easy program, but it was worth it. I learned new critical thinking and communication skills as well as new ways to advocate for myself and others. My Master’s degree opened doors for me, providing employment opportunities and upward mobility. I am now able to work a satisfying job that I deeply enjoy.
I would not be where I am today without higher education. It is one of the most important achievements in my life. Like my mother and so many other people, I would not have been able to obtain my degrees without financial aid.