By Ray Salazar

My students are sometimes surprised when they hear it took my five years to get through undergrad. “Aren’t you supposed to graduate in four?” they’ll ask.  I actually almost dropped out at the end of my second year. My parents always emphasized education and celebrated my academic success. But when my sister was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after my dad’s employer took away his employees’ health insurance, the financial struggle began.

I was supposed to go a reputable Catholic high school on the South side. But I knew we could never afford it. So, even though my 8th grade teacher thought I was making a mistake, I went to public school. Because I had good reading scores, Hubbard High School accepted me and I avoided attending the troubled neighborhood high school in Little Village.

Somehow, even with my less than mediocre high school education, my Reading, English, and Science ACT scores were in the low to mid 20s.  My Math score was 11.  With that, an AP class on my transcript, and a good GPA, I made it to a reputable Chicago college and decided to be an English teacher. Back then, out of my entire graduating class of about 200 students, I alone made it to DePaul.

I don’t think going to that private high school would have been much better.  However, I would have gained more confidence and pursued other post-secondary options. DePaul was the only college I applied to.  I picked up an application to the University of Chicago, but I never finished filling it out.  When I was a sophomore, I dreamt of going to Princeton.

Even if I had gotten into U of C, there’s no way my Burger King check would have stretched that far.  I would have definitely dropped out. Instead, I thrived academically at DePaul but struggled financially. During my third year, I worked full-time and stayed in school part-time to help out at home when my dad got sick.

One day at DePaul, I had lunch with my friend, my comadre to this day, Victoria Romero.  She admitted that she didn’t know how she was going to pay for her books that quarter. “Finally,” I said to myself comfortingly, “someone else who’s struggling!” Who would have thought hearing someone else’s financial troubles would make my day?  That day, I realized I was in good company at DePaul.

Recently, someone at work with degrees from Wisconsin-Madison made a crack about how easy it is for Southwest side students to get into DePaul. This colleague doesn’t get the Southwest side reality and what it means to be a first-generation college student who has to pay his or her own way through undergrad. I should have said something but I’ve learned to pick my battles–especially when that colleague ain’t gonna get it anyway.

People want to celebrate their college years, attend reunions, and recall the good times. I don’t. I want to forget the early 90s.  I hated my college years. Working week nights, weekends, and sometimes third shift made college something I just wanted to get through, not re-live.

One night in 1993, I met up with an elementary school friend who attended a top high school in the city and a top university in our nation. I honestly told him how despite my progress toward a degree, I just didn’t feel successful.

He passed along an insight that changed my perspective: “Measure success by looking at what you’ve done with what you had.” Almost 20 years into a highly successful career, I remind my students to do the same.

We get caught up with promoting our college degrees and people who go to top schools are probably the worst. Listen next time you’re talking to someone who graduated from a prestigious school and watch how he or she slips in the alma mater.  They usually do it in the first ten minutes of meeting you.

I’ve learned to remember and to tell my students (and to one day tell my own son and daughter) not to worry about asking or answering, “Where did you go to school?”  Instead, ask and be prepared to answer–“What are you doing with your education?”

Ray writes The White Rhino, a blog about Latino and education issues.  Follow him @whiterhinoray

 

[Photo: Flickr/Dave Herholz]

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