“College isn’t for everybody.” The first time I heard this was from my high school counselor who discouraged me from applying to San Jose State University. I heard it over and over again from teachers and other school leaders when, as president of the school board, I proposed making high school graduation requirements the same as college eligibility requirements.
That statement has some truth to it, but you have to make that determination on your own. Teachers, counselors, the school system, parents, family, friends, and society don’t have any business telling you if college is the right path for you. Unless your heart is set on a career that requires no education, I highly recommend that you give college a try.
Let’s get a couple of things straight first. College isn’t easy. It’s an exercise in determination, discipline, and hard work. It doesn’t guarantee a job and a high-paying career after graduation. That’s up to you. What college does is open your mind and opens the door to limitless opportunities. During the past few months, I’ve had the privilege to speak to high school and college students about the value of my college education in a talk I call, “How College Changed My Life.”
I failed at my first try at college, so I went out into the world and tried to make a living without an education. I drove a forklift at a sheet metal company and worked in construction to quickly learn that I was miserable. I tried selling shoes, toys, and sporting goods to find out that the fastest path to management was a college degree. I coached middle and high school kids, but that didn’t provide a living.
So, in my mid-20s, I went back to college. This time I put my heart and soul into it. My goal was to be a high school history teacher and basketball coach. A funny thing happened on the way to that goal: I never got there. Studying history at San Jose State University blew my mind wide open. I became fascinated about how business, politics, education, and ideas changed the course of history. This fascination led to a career that has been a wild, but fulfilling, ride.
When I walked into Spartan Stadium on graduation day, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anymore. I loved kids and coaching basketball, but the college experience taught me that there was so much more out there than I could even imagine. I took a position as legislative assistant to a city councilwoman, not knowing what that meant. The research, writing, and public-speaking skills I learned in college were a perfect fit for the job.
My fondest memory of that first job as a college graduate was when the councilwoman led the effort to rename the central city park in honor of Latino icon César Chávez. I suggested that the organizing committee, which included Chávez family members, honor César by engraving his name on the face of the park’s marble stage. They agreed. I got goose bumps the day that city leaders and the Chávez family unveiled the engraving. I still get goose bumps every time I see it.
Since that experience, I’ve worked in business, served on the school board, and returned to local government. Instead of teaching history, I’ve been a witness to history. I was in Denver’s Mile High Stadium as a corporate executive when President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president in2008. As a school board member, I saw parents and students save high school sports and win the fight for graduation requirements to mirror college eligibility standards.
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “No one can ever take away your education.” A few years ago, I had a massive heart attack that nearly took my life. With a damaged heart, my ability to work 18 hours a day, play basketball, and ride roller coasters has been taken away. But, I can still read, write, research, speak, and share stories with anyone who’s willing to listen. I couldn’t do any of that without my San Jose State University education.
I understand that college might not be for everyone. Our world depends on people who work in the trades, drive goods to market, and provide services. These are honorable professions that deserve our appreciation. My parents worked hard without a college education, raised a family, and encouraged their children to reach for the stars. Even though they didn’t have a university degree, they knew we needed one to achieve our dreams.
Cultural and socio-economic conditions seven decades ago made it difficult for my parents to get a higher education. We live in a different age today. There are so many more opportunities than a generation ago, especially for Latinos. Society may be telling you that you’re destined to be a truck driver, receptionist, construction worker, or landscaper. That may be true. That may be your destiny. But you ought to give college a try first. You never know what could happen.
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