Going to college as a black American is something many are not prepared to do. Sadly in a lot of our homes our parents did not have the benefit of a college education so they do not see the same value as many other cultures do in getting a higher education. For some the only criteria in life is to get a job and support yourself and your family.
When I graduated from high school my sister had just completed her second year of college. As I was planning my next steps we had a family meeting ( my parents and my sister). At this time my father was the sole person working and his company had just closed down so finances were really tight. I can still see the pain in my parents eyes as we had the conversation; “son we think college is a great thing but honestly we cannot afford to pay for both you and your sister to go to college. She has 2 years to go to complete her degree and you are just starting out. We want to help you both but financially we just can’t.”
For the first time in my life I was facing an adult financial decision. I am sure I could have made a fuss and my parents would have split their limited resources between us. The only challenge was my sister was already doing work study at her college so she didn’t have time to work more and still keep up her grade point average. I said to my parents “I understand the situation we are in and I appreciate all you have done to help us get an education. Don’t worry about college for me. I will figure something out. Let’s just make sure my sister can finish her last 2 years.” When we ended the meeting we all knew the decision was a wise one but it did not make it hurt any less.
I applied for a local university that I could attend and not incur the costs of living on campus. My goal was to minimize the expenses as much as possible. The first semester was really hard for me. I got no support in school because everywhere I turned for help I was told “you are on your own here. You have to make it work. Not our job to help you make it work.” I was not use to that type of response but of course, it was college.
The second semester my financial aid was messed up for some reasons I never understood so I did not get enough to cover my books. I tried to get my hands on used books, substitute other resources, etc. I was so put off by the lack of support I got and my grades struggled as a result. From that point I made 2 decisions; first I would get a full time job and be able to pay for books next semester and second that I would never be in a place where I needed others to help me pursue my education. My university was not the ideal place to go for help if you needed it.
I transferred out and the second year I enrolled in a business college getting a diploma in Accounting. I got a job as a bookkeeper which I held for a couple of years. I got married and left school. As my family grew I realized my income would never grow with just an Associates degree. I wanted more but could not see how to get it. My wife (bless her heart) was a stay at home mother. She told me “look, you can never do better for us as long as your education limits the types of jobs you can get. So you work and enroll in classes part time until you get your degree. I will explain to the kids, be with them and take care of the house. You focus on bettering yourself so we can all do better.”
I did that. I took classes at night and got my bachelors and masters degree. My income did improve as I was able to compete in a very competitive job market with both experience and education on my resume. My wife was a black woman who also grew up in a home where her parents didn’t have a college degree. But she was smart enough to know that I could get mine if I had some support at home to help me through. It was the first time I really felt like someone was on my side and believed in my potential.
Going to college as a black American is tough. Not many people support your dreams. You don’t have many role models and as long as you are working things seem to be alright. But to excel in life you need to have skills that are marketable. I was never good with my hands so manual labor was not going to work for me. But I was good using my head. I just needed someone to believe enough in me to see that I too could excel in life.