Why Higher Education Still Matters

As a first-generation college student, I’m also the only member in my biological family to have attended and graduated high school. I see the promise of education very differently than my family. Knowledge is my sanctuary–it is my safe place. I grew up witnessing both of my parents struggle with addiction, unemployment, and incarceration. Their relaxed and carefree views on life continued on in my brothers and sisters, who were taught low expectations and provided very little in the area of encouragement.

I remember being on a first-name basis with the truant officers who drove me to first grade when my hungover parents overslept. I had missed so much school that I didn’t know how to write my name until I was well into fourth grade. So much time was spent taking care of my infant sister, caring for my older brothers, and saving the house from my father’s habit of falling asleep smoking that before I knew it, I was eight years old and living in foster care with no idea how to read or write. It was my teachers who raised me, encouraging me, supporting me, and inspiring me to find my educational goals. I went from not even knowing the alphabet in fourth grade to reading and writing with my fifth grade class a year later. It was during this year that I found my sanctuary in school, and I realized the gifts an education provided.

Education was last on my parents’ priority list, and unfortunately, this perpetuated the cycle of ignorance, violence, and drug use that led to my mother’s passing in 2005. I harbor no ill will towards my parents; it’s the educational system’s oversight in my early years that I take issue with. While, I did have the pleasure of knowing many great teachers in those days, I also had many who saw my discomfort and used it as a vehicle to tease me. I was in school for five years before anyone realized I was not dyslexic or mentally delayed.

Fortunately, I finally got the help and encouragement I needed, but many students don’t. When I think about my educational experience, I realize that college is a privilege many students miss out on because of poor grades, failures in standardized tests, and insufficient economic means. Through improved public education, teachers would likely feel appreciated and important, which would lead to happier classrooms. I can’t tell you how excited I was when my biology teacher brought me a starfish from her summer vacation before sixth grade. Or how much my high school Key Club coordinator impacted my life by challenging me and being a strong role model for me to look up to during yet another transition between foster homes. Lasting memories like these establish relationships that boost student self-esteem, pride, and achievement; without them, students get away with underachieving, never truly learning anything.

Today’s reality is far more complex than yesterday’s, and tomorrow will showcase even greater innovations. Education is the only thing allowing us to keep pace with these ever-accelerating changes. The opportunities are there, even for busy parents who, as working students, thrive in onsite and online classes while integrating and applying high-grade thinking into their daily grind. Meanwhile, their children watch them fight for their goals. Employers appreciate these efforts, too.

Technology, art, science, math, medicine, farming, transportation, you name it—most every subject in life is influenced by higher education in one way or another. More schooling means more jobs, more money, more spending, a better economy, and a greater ability to open up new areas of study. The development of one’s education could be the difference between struggling to find meaning in life today and finding the cure for cancer tomorrow. Without education, there is no improvement, and without improvement there is only deterioration. It has taken billions of years for this planet to evolve into the world we know today, and higher education can teach us how to take better care of it, assuming we’re willing to listen.

Although I can’t be sure what the future will bring, I do know that a little starfish sparked my interest in marine wildlife some time ago. It inspired my discovery of advancing sciences and, within a short amount of time, fueled my motivation to achieve a PhD in Biochemical Engineering. I know that when my grandchildren look back, they’ll be thankful that I cared enough to play a productive role in life. And sometimes when I wake up early and head into the kitchen, I trace higher education’s influence on my morning preparations. I think about the farmers who expertly roast and package our coffee beans, the engineers who invent the machines that brew the coffee, and the equipment that cleans our water and produces our electricity. Then I realize that without these things, mornings would suck.

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Chloe Cummins2015 (7)Chloe Cummins is an Army wife, mom, and full-time pre-engineering student currently living in Colorado Springs. She enjoys spending her free time with her husband, daughter, and two dogs.