If you went to college, do you remember what the start of a new semester felt like? Does thinking about it bring back feelings of excitement, eagerness, maybe some anxiety, but hopefully most of all a great sense of accomplishment? Going to college and earning a degree is one of the most formative experiences people have. It is also one of the most powerful ways for an individual to transform their life, as well as the lives of the people around them.
The greatest barrier to attending college today is cost. Students now graduate with $25,000 in outstanding loans, on average, and the total amount of student loan debt in 2012 is likely to pass the $1 trillion mark. For many years now the cost of college has been rising faster than family and personal income, as well as outpacing efforts to expand grants and other forms of financial aid.
Yet pursuing a higher education degree is still one of the best investments both an individual and a community can make in their futures. For generations, the members of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups have looked to higher education as an entrée to greater opportunity and a more secure place in society. The same is true for people marginalized due to sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression: the knowledge and skills gained by an LGBT student completing a higher education degree program empowers both the individual and the entire LGBT community.
Paying it forward -- the idea that those receiving help should then help others -- is the DNA of Point Foundation's mission to provide scholarships, mentoring, and leadership training to meritorious LGBT students. All of the current 70 Point Scholars (as our grant recipients are called) were chosen, in part, because of their involvement with the LGBT community and their willingness to undertake an annual community service leadership project as part of their Point Scholarship.
What is amazing about these students (41 percent who are people of color, and 21 percent transgender or gender-variant) is that paying it forward is a no-brainer to them; they look to a higher education as the way to develop their great potential so that they can give back to community and improve society. Sadly, many of them know what it is like to be bullied, rejected by friends and family because of their sexuality, and to struggle in isolation with issues of self-acceptance. They are going to college because they want to make it better for others.
"I am studying to become a civil rights attorney, because I don't want LGBT people to struggle with the problems that I and others have had to face," explains Rachael Smith, a Point Scholar from a small town in Maine now studying at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Daniel O'Neil, a Point Scholar studying medicine at the George Washington University is eager to complete his medical training so that he can help the many LGBT patients he encounters. "I'm waiting for you to finish school so that you can be my doctor one day," is a common refrain Daniel says he hears from these patients, whom he describes as "having been failed time and again by a health care system unable to address their unique health needs."
Higher education by itself is not a panacea for all that ails society. LGBT people are often targets for bigotry and injustice, regardless of their level of education, just as having a degree from college does not keep individuals from harboring prejudice and practicing discrimination.
However, by paying it forward, with one generation helping another through guidance and support, individuals and communities of people are better equipped to stand up to adversity. We are never too young or too old to be role models for people -- especially LGBT youth -- who desperately need a sense of hope about the future.
They may see something of themselves in Point Scholar Brennan Peters who, as a teenager, was estranged from her family and "bullied relentlessly at school for being poor and for identifying as bisexual." Now, with the help of her Point Scholarship, Brennan is studying psychology at Loyola University in New Orleans. Finding role models in other Point Scholars and alumni, along with the guidance of her Point Mentor, Brennan says, "I've put my life back together -- this time, on my terms."
Education builds confidence -- something that has always been in too short supply among LGBT youth. Just completing high school is a challenge for many, with studies indicating that LGBT students drop out of school at a higher rate than their heterosexual peers. They need to know that there are people -- not just in the LGBT community, but also many straight allies -- who want to help them get a college education so that they can realize their full potential as confident and empowered individuals. The health and future of LGBT youth, the strength of the LGBT community, and the betterment of all society depend on our paying it forward and creating greater access to higher education.
The online application period for 2012 Point Foundation Scholarships is open through Feb. 10, 2012 at pointfoundation.org/instructions.html. People may also recommend a deserving student at pointfoundation.org/recommendastudent.html.