Dear Low-Income Grads of 2016,
I am curious; did you scan the crowd at your graduation ceremony and wonder how many of your fellow graduates grew up low income? Did you spend a minute thinking about the low-income peers who began the first year of college with you but slipped away as you persisted? I know I had both of these thoughts on my graduation day. I continued to wonder, as I went on to graduate school and entered the workforce, "where are the kids who grew up poor, like I did?" There were far too few of them entering college when I did, and far fewer of them graduated with me.
Too many students who have the ability to attend and thrive in college never even apply. Too many of those who start college never finish. This is a silent crisis that we must solve if we are going to continue to be a nation where the economy works for everyone, and where upward mobility and achieving your dreams are possible if you work hard and play by the rules.
What I think is most often missed when we talk about the degree divide and graduates like you, though, is the fact that no one else can know what you know. You know what it's like to work after school, head home to take care of younger siblings and then, late at night, begin your studying. You know what it's like to face the "soft bigotry of low expectations," and be told to aim low, to grab what's in reach and be thankful. You know what it's like to resist all those kinds of voices and instead to seize the opportunity to go as far in life as our own talents and hard work will take you.
This knowledge will make you better leaders, workers and citizens. It will make you excellent managers as you understand the power of motivation better than any group I can think of. It will make you great reformers as you advocate for those in our country who have not been given a fair shake or a fair chance at education. It will make you welcome and powerful additions to the workforce, now serving an increasingly diverse America.
Long after your graduation celebrations have ended--10, 15, 20 and 50 years from now--I know you all will be busy still. You'll be teaching kids, practicing medicine, designing and building bridges. Who knows, maybe you'll decide to mentor a low-income college hopeful or two.
Go get it rising scholars of 2016! Congratulations and thanks for all you've done and will do bring America closer to its ideals.
CEO and Founder, College Possible, first-generation college graduate