We Need to Talk About Opportunity

In the U.S., education and opportunity are nearly synonymous – particularly in an economy where education attainment, social, and economic outcomes are increasingly linked. I had the chance last week to explore this topic with other philanthropic leaders at the Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) Leadership Conference, and was heartened by the path forward.

We gathered to discuss what “Education 2.0” needs to look like, including the skills and knowledge students need to be successful and the systemic barriers facing Latino students. But at the heart of the conversation was the fact that helping students – and particularly low-income students and students of color – access a quality education is, at the end of the day, helping them participate in the American dream.

When we remove barriers and give students access to a quality education, we open up the bridge to opportunity that leads to a well-paying job, to practicing a skill or trade, to supporting a family and engaging in meaningful ways as citizens.

My work at the Gates Foundation affords me the privilege of learning from and supporting the work of institutions and partners across the country who are helping to remove barriers and extend opportunities for students. But rather than tell you about institutions and organizations, I’d like to share the stories of two students: Tyler and Carlos. Although these students live on opposite sides of the country, their stories are both reminders of how opportunity and personalized support can help students achieve their dreams and take part in the American dream.

Growing up in Georgia, Tyler balanced high school with a part-time job to help his mom make ends meet for the family. In fact, he was midway through his high school graduation ceremony before he realized he wanted to go where neither his parents nor his two older sisters had gone before: college.

However, during his freshman and sophomore years at Georgia State University (GSU), Tyler struggled under the weight of his new responsibilities. A nearly full course-load, an internship, and a daily bus commute were proving unsustainable.

Thankfully, Tyler was connected to someone at GSU who could help. Crystal Mitchell, a graduation and retention specialist, helped him get back on track. She was even able to provide information about the Panther Retention Grant, which eased some of Tyler’s financial burden and allowed him to live on campus during his junior year.

Once those barriers were removed and he got the support he needed, Tyler began to excel academically. He also joined a fraternity and enlisted as a student ambassador for the university, sharing his story of challenges and is set to become the first in his family to obtain a college degree.

Two thousand miles away in Washington state, Carlos remembers how hard it was to make it to high school graduation. Having come to the United States at age two an undocumented immigrant, Carlos needed an English translator in his early schooling in order to keep up. He later enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses and says he was able to be “just an OK student” by the time he reached high school.

When Carlos graduated high school, he followed in his father’s footsteps and spent the next year working at a restaurant—but still wondered what he wanted to do with his life and what was possible. Ultimately, he says he realized that, “education could be {his} ticket to a better future.” However, being an undocumented immigrant proved to be a barrier both to getting a better-paying job and to going to college.

For Carlos, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was the answer. He was able to enroll at Everett Community College and to pursue a career as a firefighter / paramedic. Carlos also works full-time at a restaurant yet still finds the time to tutor and mentor middle school and high school students.

When barriers are removed and opportunities extended for students like Tyler and Carlos, they are able to pursue their goals and improve their lives. But, importantly, Tyler and Carlos were also able to use their education to give back to others and to their communities in ways that otherwise would never have been possible. When students are given the opportunity and support they need to pursue the American dream, we all benefit. Tyler and Carlos’s stories motivate me to continue to find ways to help all students fulfill their potential and follow their dreams. Instead of just talking about barriers, our conversations about education should focus on how we extend opportunity. Our students deserve it, and we can’t afford to make them wait.

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