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The Power of Influence in Opening Up Education Options

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Last month, just a few weeks short of his 99th birthday, my grandfather died. Affectionately called Gramps by our family, he was a long-time positive force not only in our family, but also in his community. A 70-year resident of Fort Collins, Colorado, Gramps made his career in music, acting as a professor and chairman of the music department at Colorado State University for 35 years. What I didn’t really consider until after he passed is what is role was in helping others discover education options and opportunities.

His memorial service was one conducive to a meaningful opportunity for reflection on his life. The 200+ person capacity church was full, and 80 voices made up a voluntary choir to perform fine choral pieces that were especially meaningful to my grandpa during his life as a musician. Particularly moving to me as a member of this choir was the fact that so many of the participants were former students and colleagues of his. Each one of them came with a story about how Gramps as an educator had influenced their lives. Some former students traveled significant distances to honor him, and were so overcome with emotion regarding his passing, that performing the music was challenging. Comments like “your grandpa is the reason I believed I could make music,” or “I never thought college would be an option for me, until Ed (Gramps) agreed to hear me sing and awarded me a scholarship,” stick in my mind from that day and affirm what I already knew: my grandpa was an inspiring man.

As I write this, those comments are still fresh in my mind and mingle with the ongoing conversations we’re having in our house regarding college and the various options my oldest son, now a high school senior, has to consider beyond high school. It’s an exciting time, but also an anxiety-producing time! I’ve been encouraging him to avoid feeling like he has to have it all figured out now and to just choose a starting point and then see what his options are from there. I asserted in my last blog that formal education is not only an option in and of itself, but also a structured opportunity to explore career and education options for the future. I discussed the situation of poverty as a limiting factor for youth being able to see college as an option, and therefore explore the other options that might be available to them in moving beyond their current circumstances, financial and otherwise. It is unfortunate that the critical tool of higher education is not viewed as a viable option for all in the minds of all.

Fairly recently, I learned that in the county where I live, the poverty rate is estimated to be growing 1.5 times faster than the rest of the state. There are, however, tremendous efforts to address and change that startling statistic for the better. Author Ruby Payne, in her extensive research and writing on poverty, discusses two primary influences critical in breaking cycles of poverty: social capital and education.

As a social worker focused on mentoring youth in a high poverty population, the “social capital” piece is obviously affirming as caring adults are a powerful form of social capital. The “education” piece, in my mind, is also intuitive. In thinking about those two factors further, I am struck by how complementary they are to each other. I am encouraged by many examples in which I’ve seen or personally experienced their relationship.

I think back to my own college and grad school days, and recognize the important role professors played in my success as a student. My advisor, in addition to giving me strong academic guidance, listened to me and encouraged me on more than one occasion as I vented about the challenges of divorce or raising young kids. I think about the comments I received at my grandfather’s funeral and know that the role Gramps played as a person, a mentor, and a caring adult was a powerful part of his role as an educator.

Finally, I think of many of the youth we serve where I work—where we partner at-risk youths with mentors from the community. I think of the way our mentors are asked to encourage their “junior partners” in school, to discuss options of higher education and career paths, take them on campus visits, and help them develop soft skills that are crucial in being able to navigate places like college campuses and professional settings. These activities are instrumental in helping our youth understand that college is a viable option for them, just as the advisors, professors, and administrators are no doubt crucial in helping all people—especially people from a background of poverty—successfully navigate the educational system.

One story in particular sticks out to me. A young man, formerly involved in the program for which I work, just completed his second year of college and is looking forward to the third. This young man is one who, based on his socio-economic status and additional “risk profile,” would often be written off as non-college material. He shared his story at a community event a couple of years ago just after high school graduation, and he spoke about his excitement and sense of pride associated with being enrolled in college. He spoke about several adults who had mentored him through adolescence (including his “senior partner,” a college student) who fostered his confidence in his ability to attend college. He spoke of his mother who fought to put those adults in his life, and to recruit resources and opportunities for him to pursue the possibility. Now, he is doing it! He is achieving his dream of a college education and I’d be willing to bet that there are adults at the college level—maybe people like my grandfather—who are supporting him and working hard to ensure that he accomplishes it. I fully believe that upon graduation he will find himself in a position to pursue any number of options beyond his degree. Further, I believe that the cycle of poverty he experienced will change to one of many new possibilities.

We owe a great deal of credit to those mentors, professors and parents who have opened our eyes to education options and opportunities—I know I do. And perhaps the best way to honor them is, as we advance our own educations and careers, to try to do the same for others. Will you join me?

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